Rather than take a defendant all the way to trial and add another case to a crowded docket, a prosecutor may offer a plea deal. The American Bar Association explains that the deal usually has some aspect that makes it appealing, such as offering a lesser charge, fewer charges or a more lenient sentence.

The key is to explore whether accepting it is really in the defendant’s best interests.

Is there an alternative option?

Depending on the offense, the district may offer a diversion program that allows the person facing charges to avoid a conviction. For example, drug courts allow people to work through a supervision and treatment process that helps them to recover from addiction while monitoring their behavior. As long as they do not get in trouble and they finish the program, they may have their charges dropped.

How likely is a conviction?

If the evidence stacked up against the defendant leaves little doubt that a judge will deliver a harsh sentence, a plea deal may well be in the defendant’s favor. However, if a strong defense is possible or evidence is weak, the defendant may want to take his or her chances in court. Going to trial always presents at least some measure of uncertainty, though, so weighing the risk of a conviction is critical.

What are the collateral consequences?

According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, any conviction is likely to leave people facing sanctions, disqualifications or restrictions after the completion of a sentence. For example, a criminal record could keep someone from obtaining certain types of work, housing, educational opportunities and other necessities. Across the U.S., there are over 44,000 collateral consequences: some specific to a district or municipality, some state-wide and some at the national level.

The prosecutor and judge do not have to inform the defendant of these, and they may not even be aware of them. Defendants may want to look for potential collateral consequences online before accepting a plea deal.