By definition, a plea bargain is an agreement between the accused and the Crown to resolve an outstanding set of charges. It can be as limited as an agreement which requires the accused to plead guilty to a specific charge and requires the Crown to stay other charges. Alternatively it can be as broad as an agreement that covers not only the specific offences to which guilty pleas will be entered but also specifies the sentence for each offence as well as other sanctions such as DNA orders and firearms prohibitions.
The essence of a plea bargain is an incentive offered by Crown to the accused to plead guilty. Depending on the circumstances, the incentive can be trivial or significant.
A “joint submission” is a plea bargain which includes an agreement by Crown and defence on the sentence to be imposed and requires counsel to make a “joint submission” to the court for the sentence sought. There is no guarantee that a judge will abide by the agreement of counsel with respect to a joint submission, as judges retain overriding discretion to depart from a joint submission and pronounce a different sentence, either harsher or more lenient, if they consider it appropriate. That being said, judges are usually reluctant not to follow joint submissions, and will only refuse if they perceive that the interests of justice require a different sentence or the sentence proposed by counsel is out of the range of sentences acceptable at law for the offence in question.
There are also plea bargains which include the accused’s agreement to plead to a certain offence and the Crown’s agreement to ask for a certain sentence, leaving defence counsel to argue for whatever sentence they believe is appropriate. Sometimes plea bargains include agreement on the “facts of the case”, where only agreed facts are put to the judge for consideration at sentencing. This can be done in writing or orally.
The vast majority of plea bargains are concluded informally without any formal documentation exchanged by Crown and defence with respect to the terms of the agreement. The term “plea bargain” itself is not commonly used in British Columbia, and the process of negotiating a plea bargain is more typically referred to as “plea negotiations” or “resolution discussions.”
Plea bargaining plays an important role in the criminal justice system in British Columbia.
It benefits accused persons by reducing the uncertainty of trial and sentencing outcomes. At the same time, it benefits the public by reducing the number of trials, which are costly to the state, and it benefits victims of crime and other witnesses by sparing them the inconvenience of coming to court and testifying.
Were it not for plea bargaining, the workload of the courts would be heavier, and the administration of the criminal justice system would arguably be no better off.
To those who find plea bargaining repugnant, it is worth remembering that sometimes there is no plea bargain to be had, as a “compromise” acceptable to all parties cannot be found. In other words, the “public interest” dictates full prosecution of the charges or an unconditional guilty plea by the accused, and the case proceeds. No one forces the Crown to plea bargain, and the practice can be ended if the public wishes to bankroll the increased costs that the criminal justice system will incur without it.