Many crime drama television programs feature scenes of contentious negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys as the latter attempt to find a way to reduce the charges or the possible punishment against their clients, commonly known as plea bargaining. But how does this concept work in actual practice when one is faced with federal charges?

The actual procedures for pre-trial negotiation are laid out in federal sentencing guidelines. These guidelines break plea negotiations down into multiple sub-categories, the three most common being charge bargaining, sentencing recommendations and specific agreed sentences.

Charge bargaining often involves negotiations for someone accused of multiple crimes to agree to plead guilty to one charge in exchange for dismissal of the other charges. Although it is seemingly simple in theory, charge bargaining can actually be a complex matter because it is subject to additional considerations know as “relevant conduct” and “multi-count grouping,” both of which can affect the outcome of the negotiations. If the charge bargain does not work out successfully, the defendant has the option of withdrawing the guilty plea to the negotiated charge.

Sentencing recommendations involve the prosecution’s agreement in exchange for a guilty plea to either recommend a particular sentence, or to agree not to oppose the imposition of a given sentence. These agreements have no binding effect: if the court refuses to go along with the sentencing recommendation, withdrawal of the guilty plea is not possible.

A specific sentencing agreement is similar to a sentencing recommendation, except that it is binding in nature. This does not mean that the court cannot refuse to impose the agreed-upon sentence; but if it does, then unlike a sentencing recommendation the defendant can withdraw his or her guilty plea to the bargained-for charge. Binding sentencing agreements can still be subject to other sentencing guidelines, however, so they must be carefully negotiated to avoid being negated by criteria outside of the agreement.

There are other types of plea bargaining than the three above. And as has been pointed out, the most common forms of plea bargaining require knowledge of how federal criminal rules and sentencing guidelines work to avoid running into trouble later on. This is where having a defense law firm that is already experienced with defending against federal charges and with negotiating federal plea and sentencing mitigation can be very important.