One of the key pillars of the American legal system is the right to a trial in front of a jury of one’s peers. However, the number of jury trials for both civil and criminal cases has been declining sharply for years; in the Southern District of New York, for example, only 50 criminal cases were tried in front of a jury in 2015, less than half of the total criminal jury trials conducted in 2005. Judicial opinions, articles in law journals and bar association studies have all noted the nationwide prevalence of this trend.
Why are jury trials becoming rarer?
The decline in criminal jury trials can be tied to two main factors: new sentencing guidelines passed by Congress and an increase in mandatory minimum sentences. Together, these two measures have increased prosecutorial power to push defendants toward accepting plea deals. Because the potential sentences that defendants face upon conviction have increased dramatically, fewer defendants are willing to gamble on the outcome of a jury trial. As trial attorney Frederick P. Hafetz notes, this trend away from jury trials opens the door to “the potential abuse of the use of prosecutorial power.”
The effects of fewer trials by jury
The steep decline in the number of jury trials across the United States has produced a number of byproducts throughout the legal system. Certainly, the trend most directly affects defendants who choose to negotiate a guilty plea rather than risk a jury trial. Because plea deals mean that the prosecution’s evidence is never fully tested by all the checks of the criminal justice system, many defendants plead guilty based on evidence that might not have withstood the scrutiny of a judge and jury.
Fewer jury trials also mean that many lawyers, ranging from criminal to personal injury attorneys, are unable to gain a wide variety of trial experience. Judges also feel the effects of the decline in jury trials; Judge Jesse M. Furman of the Federal District Court in Manhattan has only presided over one jury trial in his four years on the bench, and Judge Analisa Torres notes that she is “in chambers all day long” rather than in the courtroom. And though often considered to be an important duty and right of American citizenship, serving on a jury is becoming an uncommon experience.
With no reason to believe that the trend will reverse, the effects of the reduced number of jury trials across the legal system appears to be here to stay.