Plea Bargain is the process in criminal proceedings whereby the defendant and the prosecution work out a mutually acceptable disposition of the case; it could take the form of the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser offence than that with which he is charged, or the defendant complying with other conditions imposed by the prosecution, in return for a lighter sentence, than that which would ordinarily have been imposed on the defendant.

Plea bargain involves some level of negotiation, concession and co-operation between the prosecution and the defendant in order to achieve a mutually agreeable disposal of the case. Plea bargain has the effect of reducing the punishment of the defendant (because of his co-operation with the prosecution) and gives the prosecution a conviction for the offence charged.

Plea bargain is a recent development in the Nigerian Criminal Justice system.

A Plea bargain offer may be made by the defendant or his representative to the prosecution or the prosecution may offer the defendant a plea bargain deal. Before a prosecutor decides to offer or accept a plea bargain, he is required to satisfy himself that it is in the interest of justice, the public interest and public policy to do so, and he must be guided by the need to prevent abuse of legal process.

The consent of a victim or his representative is crucial in the plea bargain process; the prosecutor is expected to enter into a plea bargain deal only after the consent of the victim of the crime is obtained. The prosecution is also required to consult the police officer investigating the case before entering into a plea bargain agreement with the defendant. The prosecution may enter into a Plea Bargain Agreement with the defendant if the following conditions are present:

  1. the evidence of the prosecution is insufficient to prove the offence charged beyond reasonable doubt;
  2. where the defendant has agreed to return the proceeds of the crime or make restitution to the victim or his representative; or
  3. where the defendant, in a case of conspiracy, has fully co-operated with the investigation and prosecution of the crime by providing relevant information for the successful prosecution of other offenders.

A plea bargain agreement may take either of the following forms; it could be a Sentence Bargain or a Charge Bargain.

A Sentence Bargain is a plea bargain agreement between the prosecution and the defendant where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the offence charged in exchange for a lesser punishment or sentence than that which would ordinarily have been imposed for the offence committed. A Charge Bargain on the other hand is a plea bargain agreement between the prosecution and the defendant where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser offence with which he is charged in order to have a higher charge dropped; this in effect also reduces punishment.

Every offence can be plea bargained, whether it is rape or murder, however, before entering into a plea bargain agreement, the prosecution is mandated by law to have due regard to the nature of and circumstances relating to the offence, the defendant and public interest.[1]

A plea bargain agreement must be reduced to writing, stating the terms of the agreement between the parties. The role of the court is pivotal in plea bargaining, this is because it is the court that gives effect to the plea bargain agreement.

It is now possible to plea bargain any federal offence with which a person is charged in Nigeria; some states like Lagos and Rivers have also made provisions for plea bargain in their laws, some other states are yet to provide for it in their laws.

Plea bargain as an instrument in the administration of criminal justice has some advantages, a few of which are:

  1. It saves the state some cost in the prosecution of crimes and it also saves the defendant some cost in defending himself.
  2. It speeds up trial ,thereby shortening the length of trial
  3. It gives the defendant a rare opportunity to negotiate his punishment; this has the added advantage of reducing the severity of the defendant’s punishment.
  4. It also ensures that some measure of justice is served, since the defendant is not allowed to walk away without punishment.

Plea bargain has been criticised for letting criminals off the hook easily, the fact that the process allows criminals negotiate their punishment has caused some people to be opposed to its use. It is also believed that the use of plea bargain may encourage lazy investigation on the part of our law enforcement agency, foster corruption and encourage a disregard of law.

[1] See Section 270(5)(b) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.