When most of us reflect on the criminal justice system, we draw upon the knowledge we received from our favourite courtroom dramas. There is the police investigation, with witnesses and suspects being interrogated and public arrests being made. It then skips to the courtroom scene, where the judge will ask for the accused’s plea, which will often be ‘not guilty’. After some last-minute submissions of evidence or an intense cross-examination of a witness, justice prevails in the end.

However, these courtroom dramas are not reflective of the majority of criminal proceedings in Victoria. In fact, the Sentencing Advisory Council has found that most accused in Victorian higher courts will plead guilty to their criminal charge. But what are the consequences of such a decision? The decision to plead guilty can have an impact on the sentence you receive, if you are unjustly convicted, whether you will have a criminal record, and your access to specialised Victorian courts.

Reduction in sentence for an early plea of guilty

If you decide to enter an early guilty plea you will be entitled to a discount on your sentence. Section 6AAA of the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic) permits that if you enter a guilty plea to a criminal charge, you may be entitled to a less severe sentence than you would have otherwise received if found to be guilty at trial. The court will also have regard for the stage in which you entered your plea. It is important to note, that the earlier in the proceedings the plea is made, the greater the reduction in the sentence.

An early plea will also save time and money of both you and the court, as well as avoiding the emotional impact a criminal trial can have on you and the victim. However, before entering a plea is it also important to remember that the prosecution have the burden of proof. Meaning, you are presumed innocent by the court until proven otherwise. The prosecution must satisfy this burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Any gaps or inconsistencies in their evidence may mean that they will be unable to achieve this threshold.

Therefore, whilst you may be saving time and money, entering an early plea may not always be in your best interest if there is insufficient evidence. This is because you may be pleading guilty to a criminal offence that the prosecution is unable to prove that you committed. It is essential that before entering a plea of guilty for a criminal charge you have lawyers examine the evidence against you. Otherwise, you may receive an unwarranted criminal conviction.

Criminal record

Pleading guilty to a criminal will not prevent you from receiving a criminal record. However, it may illustrate to the magistrate or judge that you are remorseful for you actions. This can also be taken into account when the court is sentencing you. Thereby, increasing your chances of the court sentencing you without recording a conviction. However, regardless of your guilty plea, you will not be able to receive a non-conviction where a prison sentence is imposed. When this occurs, you will receive a criminal record. Having a criminal record can have negative impacts your employment and housing opportunities, freedom of travel and insurance policies. To understand more about how a criminal record can affect your life you can read our article here. Therefore, it is important that you are only pleading guilty to criminal charges that the prosecution will be able to reasonably prove.

Accessing specialised courts

The Victorian criminal justice system has a number of specialised courts and programs such as the Drug Court and Assessment Referral Court that can result in you receiving less punitive sentences, as they have a greater focus on rehabilitation. One prerequisite for being able to have your matter heard in such courts requires a plea of guilty. For example, if you have been charged with an offence in the Magistrates or County Court and found to have a drug dependency you may wish to instead have your matter heard in the Drug Court. However, you cannot be referred to the Drug Court unless you plead guilty. In this case, pleading guilty may help you avoid a prison sentence and instead receive access to rehabilitative programs.

Don’t know whether to plead guilty?

Pleading guilty to a criminal charge can be beneficial or disadvantageous to you depending on the circumstances of your case. Therefore, it is important that if you are considering pleading guilty that you get legal advice from a criminal defence solicitor at Galbally Parker Criminal Lawyers, so that you are aware of all your options. Our team specialise in a range of different areas of the law, including appeals, assault, bail applications, organised crime and drug possession.