What Is a Binding Plea Agreement?

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Pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, plea agreements may come in three forms: charge bargains, sentence bargains and binding plea bargains. Plea agreements occur in criminal law contexts between defendants and prosecutors. When a defendant chooses a binding plea agreement, he is forever bound to the sentence to which he agreed.

Plea Bargaining Defined

Typically, plea bargaining is an agreement in which a defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a dismissal of, or a reduction in, criminal charges. Often, a criminal defendant will offer information about the crime for which he is charged including naming other participants in the crime. Once a defendant and a prosecutor strike a plea deal, the presiding judge must agree to its terms.

Controversy

Plea bargaining is frequently deemed controversial, as it allows a defendant to negotiate his sentence. In capital murder cases, criminal defendants may sometimes negotiate for a life sentence instead of the death penalty if they agree to reveal specific details about their crime such as the location of a victim's body. The purpose for plea bargaining is to reduce the prison population and, in some cases, to give a victim's family closure when details about a loved one's death or the location of her body is revealed.

Binding Plea Agreements

Of the three types of plea agreements, binding plea agreements are the most specific. When a defendant enters into a binding plea agreement, his sentence is explicitly defined. Some defendants choose to enter binding plea agreements because binding plea agreements involve agreed-upon sentences, thereby reducing uncertainty. With other plea agreements, a defendant's sentence is ultimately decided by a presiding judge. Entering into a binding plea agreement may seem attractive to a defendant if he believes the presiding judge is apt to give him a harsher sentence.

Disadvantages

When sentencing a guilty defendant, judges must adhere to specific sentencing guidelines. In charge bargaining and sentence bargaining, a judge must follow sentencing guidelines; however, judicial discretion is still allowed. Conversely, in binding plea agreements, judges must follow the terms of the agreement, which may bind a defendant to a harsher sentence. Another disadvantage to defendants who enter binding plea agreements is that sometimes sentencing guidelines are changed, resulting in a lowered sentencing range. Defendants who choose non-binding plea agreements may subsequently petition to have their sentence lowered. However, defendants who choose to enter a binding plea agreement are prohibited from later petitioning the court for a lower sentence.