For someone facing the stress, expense and embarrassment of a criminal trial, a plea bargain might seem like a preferable alternative. A successful plea bargain could mean that instead of a felony offense, the offense on your record is a misdemeanor.
Even just pleading guilty can seem like a better outcome. You also don’t have to worry about going to trial — a process that can be expensive and exhausting. Some people also assume that if they enter a plea, they will receive more lenient sentencing.
However, there is a dark side to entering a guilty plea, especially if you are not guilty.
A plea probably won’t protect you from punishment
Unless the prosecutor offers reduced consequences or your attorney successfully negotiates for them, the judge receiving your plea will still have the right to decide what sentence to impose. Although guilty pleas can motivate judges to be lenient, others still want to appear tough on crime and may sentence you to the maximum penalty allowed under the law.
Unless the language of the deal protects you from penalties, there is no guarantee that a plea will help you avoid jail probation or other serious consequences. A plea may not reduce mandatory or administrative consequences, like the loss of your driver’s license
Your criminal record could hold you back for life
A criminal record is easy for future employers or even educational institutions to find. Once you have a record, you must disclose it when applying for enrollment in school, housing, new jobs or educational funding. If you lie, you could face additional consequences and the loss of your enrollment, job or financial aid.
Everyone from rental companies to scholarship programs do background checks as part of vetting applicants, so your guilty plea might mean having limited opportunities for schooling, work and even housing.
Although it may mean more effort right now, mounting a thorough criminal defense instead of pleading guilty when you know you are innocent can protect you from all of us secondary consequences of a conviction. An experienced attorney can help.