A disturbing trend has emerged in the American criminal justice system—the diminishing of a trial by jury. According to a recent 2016 report from “The New York Times,” thirty years ago in New York there was an average of 4,000 jury verdicts in felony trials. In 2015, that figure was less than 2,000. The reason these figures are disconcerting is that the 6th Amendment dictates that all accused of a crime are entitled to a speedy trial in front of an impartial jury.
Many judges are presiding over few trial by jury cases while sitting on the bench for years and years. This isn’t surprising since civil and state cases are only held in front of a jury in approximately two percent of all cases. One of the reasons attributed to the decline? In a 1968 landmark case, Duncan v. Louisiana, the wording was changed to reflect that only those who face “serious” criminal prosecution and not “petty” would be afforded the right to a trial by jury. These terms left plenty of wiggle room to allow the courts to decipher what charges are considered “serious” or not.
Another reason for the reduction of trial by jury is fewer convictions occur. Prosecutors don’t want to waste the time and resources if a dismissal is likely. As part of the reporting done by “The New York Times,” it was found that in 2015, only 1,650 convictions came from juries out of 81,000 cases.
The lack of trials is also attributed to the difficulties of gathering jurors for a case. Jurors are only paid a small fee and they may not be willing or able to serve on a lengthy trial.
Above all else, money is at the center of the lack of jury trials. Most legal experts estimate that trials cost twice as much and last three times as long as other forms of litigation, including bench trials.
Why It Matters
Trials by jury are one of the cornerstones of the entire justice system. By not allowing trial attorneys to argue cases in a public forum, we are not ensuring that the accused are having their rights protected. With plea deals hammered out behind closed doors, there is no way to guarantee the proceedings are non-discriminatory. There is also the concern that those charged with a crime, despite their potential innocence, are accepting deals due to their fears of going to trial and facing harsher sentences.
Worse yet, many times trial attorneys do not even get a chance to closely examine the evidence a prosecutor presents before plea deal negotiations begin. The prosecutor may not have a solid case that would stand up in court if the case went to trial.
Too much power is being taken away from the courts and that makes many defendants fearful of severe sentencing if they do decide to demand a trial by jury. With congress enacting sentencing guidelines, it has taken the power of a judge’s discretion during sentencing away. Prosecutors can use these sentences as a negotiation tool to convince defendants not to proceed with a trial by jury.
Trial Attorneys Are a Rarity
With the reduction of trials in our criminal justice system, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the accused to find experienced trial attorneys. For instance, if you’re accused of a DUI charge, you may find it close to impossible to find trial attorneys who are prepared to defend you in court. Attorneys with a lack of trial experience have been accused of not having the ability to present relevant materials during discovery. This causes an overload of information for both sides to sort through before being able to go to trial.