When you are accused of a crime, you have to decide how to plead. If you opt to plead not guilty and acquittal is your goal, you usually get a choice of a jury trial or a trial before a judge (known as a bench trial). The right to a trial by jury is one of the foundational building blocks of the U.S. criminal justice system, as every person who is facing criminal penalties deserves a chance to have his case decided by a jury of his peers.
A New Jersey criminal defense lawyer can provide assistance to defendants in determining both if they should plead not guilty and, if so, whether a jury or bench trial is their best bet.
Unfortunately, while jury trials are still technically available, the New York Times reports that trials by jury are effectively vanishing within the U.S. criminal justice system -- especially for defendants who have been accused of federal crimes.
What is Happening to the Right to a Jury Trial?
Trials by jury have become exceedingly rare. The New York Times gave the example of many different judges and courts where there had been few or no jury trials. One judge on the bench for five years had presided over a total of four criminal trials.
Another, whose courtroom presides over important terrorism cases, had not had a jury trial for 18 months at the time of the Times article. One court had just 50 criminal trials over the course of the last year, which was the lowest number of criminal trials since 2004. In 2005, there were 106 trials in the same court.
While the experience of these judges and the data from these courts may be described as anecdotal, law journals and legal experts have all noted the decline in jury trials for both civil and criminal cases. A number of possible explanations exist for this decline in jury trials, but the biggest factor is sentencing guidelines which have increasingly imposed mandatory minimum sentences.
When more crimes carry lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, this gives prosecutors a substantial amount of power. Prosecutors can threaten to charge a defendant with an offense that carries a lengthy mandatory minimum penalty, so the defendant will have to face the risk that a conviction could mean years in prison and no discretion from the judge to impose a lighter sentence due to mitigating factors.
As a result, defendants become too scared to go to trial. Prosecutors offer plea deals to lesser offenses, and defendants accept out of fear that a conviction could otherwise mean years in prison.
Jury trials are supposed to be a check against exactly this sort of prosecutorial power, but unfortunately with the risk of going to trial so high, many defendants simply give up and admit guilt -- even if they believe the evidence against them is weak and even, in some cases, when they may be innocent of the offenses that prosecutors are threatening to charge them with.
This has consequences for individual defendants, as well as for the criminal justice system as a whole. As one judge commented to the Times: “A trial is the one place where the system really gets tested. Everything else is done behind closed doors.”
Unfortunately, this trend is unlikely to be reversed any time soon, absent criminal justice reform and changes to sentencing guidelines. Defendants need to protect their rights and should talk with an experienced criminal defense attorney before they decide how to plead and what type of trial could be best for their situation. Call Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, P.A. today.