By: Eva Zelson
On: June 23, 2020
If you are accused of a crime, you may think you will eventually present your defense to a jury. After all, according to Thomas Jefferson, “trials by jury [are] the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its Constitution.” But, as a recent article makes clear, currently only about 3% of criminal cases are actually tried in front of a jury.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution provides the right to a jury trial for criminal cases. And criminal defendants technically can exercise this right. But, as the article from the Bulwark linked below makes clear, judges and prosecutors often penalize criminal defendants who take their cases to trial rather than accept a plea bargain.
In the mid-1980s, America’s so-called “War on Crime” led to the institution of higher sentences for people convicted of various crimes. For example, in Wisconsin, the maximum sentence for the commission of a Class B felony went from 20 years imprisonment to 60 years imprisonment. In addition, when cases go to trial, prosecutors may proceed on additional charges that carry longer sentences.
Rather than risk being found guilty and being subjected to long prison sentences, many people are instead compelled to accept a plea. This means that a high percentage of criminal defendants are ultimately convicted of a crime, but this does not necessarily mean that justice has been done.
According to the article linked below, it is important to consider reforms to this system concurrently with reforms to law enforcement. Some suggested reforms include prohibiting prosecutors from seeking vastly longer sentences at trial than they would during plea negotiations, allowing defense attorneys to question the justice of the charges themselves and eliminating duplicate charges. Through these reforms, perhaps we will truly achieve the goals of Thomas Jefferson and the promise of the Sixth Amendment.
Read the Bulwark.com article “We Need More Trials by Jury,” here.