Pleading guilty early can reduce your sentence, and the benefits of pleading guilty are much more likely to kick in the earlier that you plead.
Police are often open to discussions on plea bargaining, which is where more serious charges can be dropped if you plead guilty early to lesser ones.
However, one justice thinks that plea-bargaining has gone too far. Justice Hulme expressed anger at the type of plea bargaining that had taken place in a case before him in the Supreme Court.
In this case the defendant was charged with kidnapping his girlfriend and threatening to bury her alive or kill her. Fortunately she escaped, but when the case was heard in court, he was only charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm due to plea bargaining (read more here). Justice Hulme was outraged.
In most criminal proceedings, the accused will plead guilty at some stage of the proceedings (this number was 82% in 2012). Most of these (about 62%) occurred on the day of the trial.
According to the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999, a plea of guilty can be taken into account in deciding what the sentence of an offender will be. However, the penalty must not be unreasonably disproportionate to the offence.
In general, the range of discount in a sentence is around 10-25% and the main determinant in whereabouts within this range an individual sentence will fall depends on the timing of the plea (and what is regarded as early varies according to the circumstances and is a matter to be decided by the judge).
The circumstances that a court can take into account include the number and type of charges, the fitness of the offender to plead, offers to plead which were given earlier but rejected, or where the prosecution increases the charges and indicates it will amend the charge later.
If the court decides not to impose a lesser penalty on the offender after a guilty plea, they must give reasons to the offender for doing so.
The NSW bench book notes that the contrary to pleading early is NOT true: the court is not allowed to penalise an accused person for not initially pleading guilty (even if they do so later). So even if you have wasted the courts time, or resources by putting the prosecution to proof, you cannot get a harsher sentence than whatever would be proper for the offence.
The reasoning behind early guilty pleas and plea bargaining is that court cases take up time and resources. If you plead guilty when your case is heard in court there may already be a jury empanelled, the prosecution will have wasted time preparing and witnesses may have had to come to court unnecessarily.
So, in order to cut down on these expenses (and considering that many offenders end up pleading guilty anyway) the Guidelines of the Director of Public Prosecutions state that it is police policy to encourage those who committed crimes to plead guilty.
In addition, an early guilty plea may also show that you accepted responsibility for your actions and are remorseful. This may help if you were hoping to get your matter dealt with under a section 10 dismissal or conditional release order, which is a particular way of dealing with a matter when the accused person has pleaded guilty – and it means you could avoid a criminal record.
Of course, if you have been charged with an offence, the effects of a guilty plea will all depend on your individual circumstances. Before you decide how to plead you need to make sure you understand clearly what you have been charged with. If you are in any doubt about pleading, it may be a good idea to speak with a lawyer who will be able to advice you on the best course of action.