If you are ever charged with a crime in New Jersey, chances are good that, at some point you or your criminal defense attorney will be approached by the prosecution regarding a plea bargain. Plea bargains, or plea agreements, are usually negotiated between defense counsel and prosecutors.
These agreements generally result in the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser crime than the one for which he or she was originally charged. In some cases, the agreement could be that the prosecution will recommend that the judge hand down a shorter jail sentence or even probation.
These deals are necessary to keep the criminal justice system chugging along and not getting bogged down. This is what would happen if all cases went to trial.
There are individual judge teams in the Criminal Division that are managed by team leaders who coordinate court appearances with the prosecution and defense. They are responsible for setting the court date for the defendant to enter a plea.
In order to do this, defendants have to sign statements certifying that they understand their plea agreement and voluntarily agree to it. This must acknowledge that neither their own attorney nor the prosecutor has pressured them in any way. Defendants must state that they are aware that the judge is not bound by the plea when determining or rendering a jail sentence, if applicable.
Judges who believe that a plea agreement is too lenient have the right to reject a plea. They may then order the attorneys to re-negotiate or set the matter for trial. Nearly a third of cases settle through plea bargains and pretrial programs. When indictments are issued, more than 70 percent get resolved before a trial reaches the end.
Defendants who plead guilty have to acknowledge the plea in open court. Pleading guilty doesn’t negate the right to appeal the conviction in the Superior Court’s Appellate Division.
The Criminal Division’s case supervisors with the judge’s team or probation officers will conduct a pre-sentence investigation and issue a report. Both the defense and prosecution, as well as the judge, will refer to this report during the sentencing phase.
To learn more about your rights in a plea bargains, it is advisable to seek legal counsel before signing any agreement.