A majority of criminal cases do not go to trial and are instead resolved through a process called plea bargaining. A plea bargain is an offer made by the prosecution that you plead guilty to a lesser charge. The prosecutor can present this offer at any time between your first arraignment and your pretrial readiness conference.
Whether you are guilty or innocent of the charges against you, your dilemma is knowing IF and WHEN you should plea-bargain. The former question is best addressed by considering the following factors:
Controlling the outcome in your case. In deciding whether to plea-bargain, it is important that you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecution's case against you. You may choose not to plea and proceed to trial if a thorough investigation of the facts and law reveals a substantial likelihood that you will be exonerated of the charges. However, keep in mind that notwithstanding any weaknesses in the government's case against you, trial by jury is a roll of the dice. A jury may convict you even with the best attorneys and the most exonerating evidence on your side. A plea bargain provides you with some control over the ultimate disposition in your case.
Getting out of jail. Defendants who are held in custody -- who either do not have the right to bail or cannot afford bail, or who do not qualify for release on their own recognizance -- may be released on probation immediately following the judge's acceptance of a plea. In the alternative, a defendant may have to serve some time but will get out much sooner than if he or she insisted on going to trial.
Finding a timely resolution to your case. A plea bargain provides an expeditious resolution to the stress of being prosecuted. Going to trial is a much longer process—and causes much more stress—than taking a plea bargain.
Having fewer or reduced offenses on your record. Pleading guilty or no contest in exchange for reduction in the number of charges or the seriousness of the offense looks a lot better on your record than convictions following trial.
It is important that you and your attorney act quickly to negotiate a favorable outcome in your case. This means that, early on, your attorney should detect any and all mitigating factors that can support the reduction of the charge[s] or sentence against you. As a general rule, the sooner you plea-bargain, the better a deal you will receive. Your trust in your attorney's ability to cut you a favorable deal is therefore crucial. Plea negotiations are best materialized when you and your attorney have a solid relationship of trust and candor.