Jury Trials: A Radical Reform for the Federal Court System?
Okay, maybe that’s too much sarcasm. But it used to be the case that state and federal criminal court systems required juries in criminal cases. There are very good legal, political, and historical arguments to require jury trials again in the federal court system. One website explains, in a post titled “How Plea Bargains Are Making Jury Trials Obsolete“:
In today’s criminal justice system, convictions come by agreement. The tradition of being tried by one’s peers, established centuries ago and affirmed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has all but disappeared.
The plea bargain has made jury trials obsolete.
Ninety-seven percent of federal criminal prosecutions are resolved by plea bargain. In state courts the numbers are comparable. The plea bargain may be the grease that keeps the criminal justice system churning, but it may also be a sign of a system in need of repair.
In “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty” Jed S. Rakoff (United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York), notes that drifting away from jury trials leads to, among other problems, prosecutorial abuse:
To the Founding Fathers, the critical element in the system was the jury trial, which served not only as a truth-seeking mechanism and a means of achieving fairness, but also as a shield against tyranny. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
The Sixth Amendment guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” The Constitution further guarantees that at the trial, the accused will have the assistance of counsel, who can confront and cross-examine his accusers and present evidence on the accused’s behalf. He may be convicted only if an impartial jury of his peers is unanimously of the view that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and so states, publicly, in its verdict.
The author explains the history of plea bargains after World War I, and the end of nearly all jury trials caused by “get tough on crime” sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences:
One thing that did become quickly apparent, however, was that these guidelines, along with mandatory minimums, were causing the virtual extinction of jury trials in federal criminal cases. Thus, whereas in 1980, 19 percent of all federal defendants went to trial, by 2000 the number had decreased to less than 6 percent and by 2010 to less than 3 percent, where it has remained ever since.
The reason for this is that the guidelines, like the mandatory minimums, provide prosecutors with weapons to bludgeon defendants into effectively coerced plea bargains. In the majority of criminal cases, a defense lawyer only meets her client when or shortly after the client is arrested, so that, at the outset, she is at a considerable informational disadvantage to the prosecutor. If, as is very often the case (despite the constitutional prohibition of “excessive bail”), bail is set so high that the client is detained, the defense lawyer has only modest opportunities, within the limited visiting hours and other arduous restrictions imposed by most jails, to interview her client and find out his version of the facts. [Source as above.]
(Also of interest, the author’s May 2015 article: “Mass Incarceration: The Silence of the Judges“)
Tim Lynch of the Cato Institute writes on “The Devil’s Bargain: How Plea Agreements, Never Contemplated by the Framers, Undermine Justice” here:
Most Americans are under the mistaken impression that when the government accuses someone of a crime, the case typically proceeds to trial, where a jury of laypeople hears arguments from the prosecution and the defense, then deliberates over the evidence before deciding on the defendant’s guilt or innocence. This image of American justice is wildly off the mark. Criminal cases rarely go to trial, because about 95 percent are resolved by plea bargains. In a plea bargain, the prosecutor usually offers a reduced prison sentence if the defendant agrees to waive his right to a jury trial and admit guilt in a summary proceeding before a judge.
This standard operating procedure was not contemplated by the Framers. …
Why was September 5 selected to be Jury Rights Day? Because today was the day of a historic case involving William Penn, the man who founded Pennsylvania. Let’s remember that many people came to America to escape religious persecution in Europe. Penn was a Quaker when the Quaker religion was illegal in England. He was arrested after preaching to a group of Quakers–and that was no misdemeanor. In 1670, Penn was facing the death penalty for unlawful assembly, disturbing the peace, and riot.
It was an extraordinary trial. Penn and his co-defendant, William Mead, were gagged during the trial for making arguments that displeased the court. When the jury came back from deliberations and announced that they were divided–some for conviction, some for acquittal, the judges ridiculed those who voted to acquit and sent them back. When the jury remained deadlocked, the court ordered them to prison with no food till they could reach a unanimous verdict. After two days without food, the jury returned with a “not guilty” verdict. Outraged, the court fined the jurors and ordered their imprisonment until the fines were paid. A higher court overturned that punishment and said a jury must resolve cases based upon their own understanding, not because of threats of punishment from the state.
Also, the jury system, as it has developed in the U.S., has its own modern problems and seems open to manipulation, according to Adam Benforado in his June 16, 2015 Atlantic article: “Reasonable Doubts About the Jury System: Trial consultants allow the affluent to manipulate the biases of those who judge them, putting justice up for sale.”
The Framers of the Constitution of 1789 and of the Bill of Rights revered trial by jury—a right that Sir William Blackstone had described as “the palladium of English liberty.” By the time of the Framing, common-law juries had a more than five-century history in England. They had been part of the American experience from the start. Although juries then were considerably less representative of the adult population than they are today, they were the most democratic of the governmental institutions in the colonies. Most Americans cheered their resistance to repressive colonial measures, especially British revenue laws and seditious libel laws.
In some colonies, juries had the power to judge questions of law as well as fact. They consisted of twelve people who always acted by unanimous vote. In felony cases, nonjury trials were unknown, and guilty pleas infrequent. Trials were expeditious and routine.