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Judges and plea bargain agreements

On Behalf of | Aug 16, 2023 | Criminal Defense

The courts and legal processing system in West Virginia are increasingly stretched thin, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Any legal process, whether civil or criminal, takes much time and specialized effort, from law enforcement officers to clerks to lawyers to judges.

Currently, judges aren’t permitted to participate in the negotiation between prosecution and criminal defense in creating a plea agreement. Instead, the agreement is negotiated and presented to the judge for approval. But allowing judges more involvement in the process might have some benefits, including time and labor savings.

How the plea agreement process works

As things stand, a plea deal begins as a back-and-forth between the prosecution and the defendant, as represented by their defense attorney. Assuming the defendant has an interest in a plea agreement, the sides will negotiate what kind of charges the defendant pleads guilty to, along with the accompanying fines, prison time, or probation.

During that phase of the plea process, the judge cannot be involved. Courts have ruled against judges participating based on existing law. Only once the two sides have struck a deal does the judge enter the picture. The judge can either accept the deal or require that the two parties develop a new one if the existing deal is unacceptable.

Why allowing judges to participate earlier might help

There are two primary potential benefits to allowing judges earlier participation in the plea agreement process. The first is fairness to the defendant, and the second saves the court and its workers time.

One of the judge’s responsibilities in evaluating a plea deal is deciding whether the defendant entered into it willingly and with full understanding. But it’s much harder to determine after the fact than if the judge was present earlier.

And when an inadequate plea deal gets presented and the judge asks for a new one, all the negotiating time earlier is wasted. Having the judge involved earlier saves everyone’s time in that scenario.

Judges only participate in the plea deal process once a bargain has been reached. But allowing judges earlier access in the process could benefit the defendant and the court itself.