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Jury trials are on the decline: Is this a good or bad thing?

Those who are accused of a crime have a fundamental right to a jury trial. Clearly our founding fathers felt this form of trial was important, as they included it in not one, but two different portions of the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the use of a jury trial is fading. Just thirty years ago, jury trials occurred in approximately 10% of all federal criminal cases.

Now, only 2% of federal criminal cases actually get a jury trial.

What happens when one accused of a crime is no longer able to face a jury of their peers?

There are two concerning results:

  1. Difficulty finding experienced attorneys. Since there are fewer criminal trials, it is difficult for attorneys to get the practical experience within the courtroom. This can make it difficult for those accused of a crime to find legal counsel with trial experience.
  2. Weakens democracy. According to some legal experts, the removal of citizens participation within our judicial system may threaten the basic foundation of democracy. The removal of the average citizen from this process is akin to removing a check and balance protection that is important to keep the country’s democracy strong.

Unfortunately, the reduction is not a result of fewer criminal charges. Instead, one of the primary reasons for the decrease in jury trials is the enactment of the federal sentencing guidelines in the eighties. This tough stance towards jail sentencing, particularly focused on drug crimes, led to mandatory minimums and put in place strict sentencing expectations for judges who were presiding over these cases. Those who choose to fight the charges in court could find themselves facing significantly longer jail time than before. A guilty verdict was now an even bigger blow because the ability of the sentencing guidelines essentially removed the ability of the judge to adjust the sentence to the particulars of the situation.

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