Can a Judge Reject a Plea Bargain? 6 Reasons

Updated January 24, 2024
10 min read
Can a Judge Reject a Plea Bargain? 6 Reasons


A plea bargain is when a defendant and their lawyer use the information to come to an agreement with both parties that in exchange for jail time, a strike on the record, or some other aspect of conviction, the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. But can a judge deny a plea deal?

How Often Do Judges Reject Plea Bargains?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2003, there were 75,573 cases in federal district courts, of which 95% used a guilty plea bargain. Even today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that between 90 and 95% of federal and state court cases are resolved using a plea bargain.

Judges can accept an agreement as it is, reject it outright, or, in some states, accept only certain aspects.

When a judge accepts only some aspects of the plea deal, it is called a partially negotiated plea. Where judges feel they lack adequate information to make a decision, they might postpone accepting or rejecting the plea deal until they have a pre-sentencing report. 

How Judges Accept and Reject Plea Deals

As a part of judicial review, judges have the discretion to inspect a plea deal thoroughly, and importantly, they hold the power to reject it. So, addressing the query — can a judge reject a plea deal? Yes, a judge indeed possesses the authority to reject a plea deal before it reaches the stage of finalization.

Some jurisdictions give defendants an opportunity to withdraw a guilty plea if the judge does not accept the sentencing recommendation.

  1. The best interests of the victim(s): A judge can reject a plea deal if they find it contrary to the best interest of the victim or their family. While not a legal requirement, a judge might consider this aspect, especially when the plea deal terms face opposition from the victim’s family or serious charges where a lesser sentence seems inappropriate.

  2. The best interest of the defendant: On rare occasions, a judge might show sympathy for the defendant, believing they possess a strong enough defense. In such instances, a judge might reject the plea deal and suggest that the defendant fights the charge in court, potentially leading to a lighter sentence.

  3. Criminal record: A judge will evaluate the defendant's prior criminal record when considering a potential plea deal. If the defendant is a first-time offender, the judge is more likely to accept the plea deal. However, for defendants with a significant criminal history, judges tend to be less inclined to accept the plea deal.

  4. The crime: The nature of the crime also influences whether a judge will approve or reject the plea deal. Laws and reactions to specific crimes vary across states, affecting the judge's decision on the plea deal. For instance, the differing stances on marijuana use across states might cause varied reactions to plea deals involving a small amount of marijuana possession.

  5. The community: Judges also assess whether the plea deal, resulting in a lighter sentence, will serve the broader community's best interests. For instance, if a defendant has a history of violent behavior, the potential risk to the community could compel the judge to reject the plea deal.

  6. Violation of the plea agreement: The last reason a judge might reject a plea deal arises from a violation of the plea agreement terms. This scenario might occur after an initial agreement, wherein failure to meet specific stipulations leads to a legal termination of the plea agreement.

Judges will review the nature of the crime or crimes to determine if the charges somewhat match the crime.
  • If the police were called to the scene for a domestic disturbance but no serious injuries were sustained, and it was the first time, advice from the prosecution that the plea deal includes treatment for alcohol abuse as well as anger management classes might be viewed as a more constructive form of punishment.
  • If police are called to the scene for the same type of domestic disturbance where serious injuries were sustained in this was the fourth or fifth time for the same individual, the judge can rule that offering a lighter sentence is unacceptable given the nature of the crime.

Can a Judge Overrule a Plea Deal Decision?

Once a plea bargain has been made and agreed upon by all parties involved, including the judge, the judge cannot go back and overrule plea bargain decisions for no reason or because they changed their mind.

When can a judge overrule a plea agreement?

The only exception is if, during plea bargaining, the defendant and the prosecutor made a deal with the courts that one aspect of the deal would be the completion of certain terms or adherence to certain terms.

In the event that these terms are not met or some aspect of the agreed-upon bargain is violated as laid out by the terms, the judge can withdraw the plea bargain. 

For example, the state Code of Virginia, Section § 18.2-251, offers first-time offenders the First Offender Program. The purpose of this program is to give first-time offenders for minor crimes the opportunity to avoid going to jail and instead be placed on probation, attend educational programs, complete community service hours, and, if necessary, undergo substance abuse treatment. 

  • Individuals applying for this program have to be evaluated, and if it is agreed upon, the terms dictate that those in the program have to remain drug and alcohol-free for the duration of their probation, and to verify this, they have to undergo regular drug tests.

  • They also have to complete community service requirements and attend all treatment or educational programs.

Failure to do so means the local judge can change the plea bargain and, in most cases, immediately convict the person of the crime for which they were originally charged. 

How can a judge change a plea deal bargain?

In this case, the judge can change the plea bargain because aspects of the original terms were violated, and therefore, since the defendant didn’t keep up their end of the agreement, the criminal justice system charged them with the conviction.


Navigating through plea bargains or contest pleas often necessitates the guidance of a qualified attorney. If you find yourself wondering, can a judge throw out a plea deal that I am contemplating, the insights from an experienced criminal defense attorney can be invaluable. This professional guidance can enhance your understanding of the plea bargain process and the intricate dynamics of the legal system.

They can walk you through a reliable recourse vendor, Lawrina, with related legal rules and customs that vary from state to state, empowering you to make informed decisions.

Article by
Yevheniia Savchenko

Yevheniia Savchenko is a Product Content Manager at Lawrina. Yevheniia creates user interface copies for Lawrina products, writes release notes, and helps customers get the best user experience from all Lawrina products. Also, Yevheniia is in charge of creating helpful content on legal template pages (Lawrina Templates) and up-to-date information on US law (Lawrina Guides). In her spare time, Yevheniia takes up swimming, travels, and goes for a walk in her home city.

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