By way of the legal doctrine of “incorporation”, the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution has long been applied to the states. By this doctrine, the states' judiciaries are required to value the Rights assured to us by the Constitution. Among these Rights, the Sixth Amendment, is the right to a jury trial for all criminal offenses where the defendant is facing a sentence exceeding six months in jail.

According the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, only about 5% of all criminal convictions occur by means of a trial; the other 95% are resolved by guilty pleas. Of that 5%, only 1% are determined by jury trials. Of the more than one million criminal trials annually nationwide, why have countless Americans chosen to voluntarily forego one of the oldest and most cherished rights we possess? To answer that query, we have to bear in mind a few contributing factors, all of which have been employed to make our criminal justice process operate more efficiently, i.e., assure more convictions.

Let’s face it. There is no possible way that our justice system can withstand bench trials (trial by a judge with no jury) for each criminal case, let alone a jury trial which lasts considerably longer. In Virginia, there are around 200,000 criminal cases statewide annually. The judicial system in its present state is stressed to its limits; if there were to be a small raise in the amount of defendants demanding trials, the judicial system would face collapse. If those same defendants demanded jury trials the system would essentially collapse.

To combat the recent rise in crime during the last quarter century, mostly resulting from more drug crimes as well as other “vice” crimes (prostitution, gambling, alcohol etc.), Virginia’s General Assembly added extra weapons to prosecutors’ arsenals. One of these weapons is increased minimum sentences. Under Virginia law, if a jury returns a verdict of guilty, they will also propose a sentence. So long as the sentence is within the minimum/maximum window, it is valid. Judges rarely ignore jury sentences which a lot of times is considerably lengthier than a sentence issued by a judge. In Virginia, a jury, in contrast to a judge, is not authorized to suspend any sentence recommendation. Hence, if a person is charged with manufacture and distribution of a controlled substance, a charge that carries a five year minimum sentence, a judge may well suspend four of those five years, a jury may not.

Yet another law in Virginia allows that any of the three parties, the defendant, judge or the prosecutor, may require a jury trial. Realizing the minimum sentence range, a prosecutor may threaten to call for a jury trial. Imagine that! A Constitutional Right being used as a threat to the defendant. Any defendant that is facing a minimum sentence of five years, even if they are innocent, may choose a guilty plea with a six month sentence.

Finally there are the Virginia criminal defense lawyers. While jury trials are a staple of romanticism in Hollywood movies, they are grueling and demanding in actuality – on the defendant for sure, as well as the criminal attorney. Negotiating a guilty plea, or even planning for a bench trial, may involve several hours of work. To prepare appropriately for a jury trial can take days, weeks, even months. Most defendants can simply not afford the expense of a jury trial which might run into the tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands for serious and complex subjects.

In general, the only people who currently go for a jury trial may fall into three groups: those that claim to be truly innocent and refuse to plead guilty, individuals who are just too stubborn to simply accept the specifics and reality, and those who are career offenders and have nothing to lose by a jury trial. For anyone who is charged with a crime in Virginia, you ought to seek counsel from a Virginia criminal defense attorney to figure out if you should plead guilty or go to trial, and if a trial, should it be by a judge or jury.

Author's Bio: 

James Garrett is a criminal defense lawyer in Virginia Beach. He is the founding member of Garrett Law Group, PLC. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, please contact him to discuss your criminal case with him free of cost, (757) 422-4646.

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