The overwhelming majority of criminal cases in New York and around the country are settled when defendants enter into plea agreements. They usually do this because the evidence against them is strong and their chances of prevailing in court are slim. Prosecutors like plea agreements because they ease their caseloads and eliminate the risks and uncertainties of a trial, and judges encourage them because they keep the criminal justice system moving. Plea offers can be made and accepted at any time before a verdict is returned, and it is not uncommon for deals to be struck as jurors are deliberating.
The trial penalty
Plea bargains have been harshly criticized by criminal defense attorneys and groups advocating for criminal justice reform. These advocates say that defendants who maintain their innocence are coerced into pleading guilty by aggressive charging practices and harsh mandatory minimum penalties. The severe sentences handed down by judges following guilty verdicts are called the trial penalty, and the years can really add up when defendants face a raft of charges that all carry mandatory minimums.
Sentencing and appeals
Prosecutors can offer to drop charges, but determining the final sentence is always left to a judge. If judges consider a sentencing recommendation to be too lenient and choose to hand down a more severe sentence, the offender can withdraw their guilty plea and either return to the negotiating table or wait for their case to go to court. The courts in New York consider a criminal case concluded when a guilty plea is entered, and prosecutors usually make offers that include appeals waivers. This means that defendants who enter into plea agreements are not able to file appeals if new evidence is uncovered or a key witness recants.
The sharp decline in the number of criminal trials and the rise in guilty pleas has created a situation where cases are sometimes determined based on the severity of the sentence and not the strength of the evidence. Requiring defendants to waive their rights to appellate review could also prevent unconstitutional law enforcement practices from being challenged in court.