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Why Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli held out on a guilty plea — until now

Analysis: The coronavirus pandemic is a bad time for the world, but a good time for those facing sentencing.

"Full House" actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, have agreed to plead guilty to charges for their part in a massive college admissions scandal, according to a government filing in the case Thursday.

It was only a matter of time.

Most federal criminal defendants don't go to trial, but those who do are often found guilty. It’s why so many people charged with white collar crimes rush to the courthouse to plead guilty immediately after they are charged. It’s not necessarily because they believe they are guilty; they usually believe they are innocent. More often, defendants want to avoid the prolonged agony of a trial, minimize their prison time, and get the whole thing behind them.

Some defendants, such as Loughlin and Giannulli, vow to battle their cases all the way to trial. They say this in the beginning, however, before the battle begins. Months later, when they’ve drained their accounts to pay lawyers and lived with this trial over their heads, they often reconsider exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial.

Federal prosecutors in this case did their part to incentivize early guilty pleas. Many others who were charged in the massive cheating scheme pleaded early and got sentenced quickly, and to relatively lighter punishment. As for Loughlin and those who maintained their innocence? The government added more charges, and more potential prison time, raising the stakes for those defendants. It’s unofficially called the “trial tax:” defendants who admit their guilt and accept responsibility for their crimes receive lower sentences than defendants who deny their guilt and proceed to trial.

That’s not what happened to Loughlin. From the plea agreement, it seems these defendants are not going to get hit with the “trial tax."

Loughlin and Giannulli face a 20-year statutory maximum sentence for conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud to obtain property. Admittedly, first-time offenders like these defendants usually don’t get anywhere close to the statutory maximum. But, according to the terms of the plea agreement, Loughlin’s sentencing guidelines range would come out to about 21-27 months. And yet, the government’s recommended sentence is just two months (Giannulli, who's also pleading guilty to a charge of honest services wire and mail fraud, is facing five months behind bars).

Two months is more time than the actress and fellow defendant Felicity Huffman received. Huffman raced to the courthouse to plead guilty, get the lowest possible sentence, and put the entire experience behind her. Her sentence was 14 days; she was released after serving only 11 of them.

But two months is a lot less than 20 years. It’s also significantly less (about 93 percent less) than the high end of the sentencing guidelines range. The government also had her plead guilty to the conspiracy count, with prosecutors agreeing to drop counts 2-3.

Of course, just because the prosecutors and the defendants agree on a sentence doesn’t mean that’s the sentence Loughlin will get. The sentencing court is not bound by the parties' mutual embrace of a recommended sentence in a plea agreement, unless it actually accepts the plea agreement.

Another unknown is the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Loughlin’s sentence. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, 2,265 federal inmates and 188 agency staff have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide. There have been 58 federal inmate deaths attributed to the disease caused by the coronavirus. The agency has increased home confinement by over 40 percent since March, and on April 3, Attorney General William Barr exercised emergency authority under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, to further increase home confinement.

It’s a bad time for the world, but a good time for those who are facing sentencing, because judges and wardens nationwide are more inclined to impose noncustodial sentences, particularly for first-time, nonviolent offenders.

Danny Cevallos is an MSNBC legal analyst who practices in the areas of personal injury, wrongful conviction and criminal defense in Pennsylvania, New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands.