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1.5: Criminal Procedure and Arraignment, Bail, and Plea Agreements


  1. Learn about Arraignments, Bail, and Plea Agreements.
  2. Learn how to use legal English vocabulary related to Arraignments, Bail, and Plea Agreements in the United States.


  1. Read about the arraignment process in the United States.
  2. Read about bail in the United States.
  3. Watch a video and read about plea agreements.
  4. Answer the questions.

1. Arraignment

At an arraignment the judge will read a list of charges against the defendant and ask him to plead in response to the charges.  The defendant may plead guilty, not guilty, and in some cases nolo contendre.[

  • A not guilty plea means that the defendant denies the charges and the government must proceed to trial and prove its case.
  • If the defendant pleads guilty the defendant admits to the charges and waives his right to a trial.  A decision to plead guilty is frequently the result of a plea agreement or plea bargain.  The guilty plea must be made knowingly and intelligently and the judge must determine that there is a factual basis for the defendant to admit to the charges.   The judge will question the defendant to insure that he understands that by pleading guilty he has waived his rights and will be sentenced for his crimes.
  • A plea of nolo contendre means that the defendant says he does not want to “contest” or fight the charges at trial.  In this way, a plea of nolo contendre is identical to a guilty plea because the judge can then proceed with sentencing as if the defendant pleaded guilty.  The advantage for a defendant is at a subsequent civil trial, his plea of nolo contendre cannot be used as evidence against him.  If a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted of a crime, a civil plaintiff may introduce such evidence at trial as evidence of liability.

2. Bail

Either at the arraignment or sometime prior to the arraignment the court will determine whether the suspect should be in jail until trial or whether he may be released before trial.   Typically, if a suspect is released before trial the judge will set bail.  Bail is a sum of money that the suspect deposits with the court as a guarantee that he will return for trial. 

Every suspect is guaranteed a right to a bail hearing to determine whether or not he will be released on bail.  The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits excessive bail.

In daily conversation, we say a person “makes bail” if they have enough money to get out on bail before trial.

When a person is awaiting trial but not in jail because he “made bail” we say that person is “out on bail” or “out of jail on bail.”

3. Plea Agreements

Watch a video introducing plea agreements:

Because of plea agreements, sometimes called “plea bargains,” very few criminal cases in the United States ever go to trial.  Plea agreements are the product of negotiation between a defendant, his counsel, and the prosecutor.  In a plea agreement the defendant agrees to plead guilty, usually to a less severe criminal charge. 

Why agree to plead guilty?  Although the prosecutor cannot guarantee what the defendant’s sentence will be (which is determined by the judge), by pleading guilty to a lesser criminal charge the defendant can often escape more severe punishment.  In return, the state saves time and money by avoiding trial. 

In some cases, as part of a plea agreement, the defendant will provide evidence to help the state convict other defendants.  Prosecutors will often recommend that a judge grant a more lenient sentence to a defendant who is willing to enter into a plea agreement.

In daily conversation we say someone who agrees to plead guilty to a crime, “took a plea” or “took a plea deal”.

4. Answer the Questions