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Why jury trials are becoming less common

August 13, 2016 at 5:13 PM EDT
A new analysis of federal court cases published last week by The New York Times shows that jury trials are becoming increasingly less common. In 1997, 3,200 out of 63,000 federal defendants were convicted in jury trials. But by 2015, even as the number of defendants grew to 81,000, jury convictions dropped to 1,650. Benjamin Weiser of The New York Times joins William Brangham from Maine.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:  Judging by the proliferation of TV shows, miniseries and podcasts about our legal system, you’d think jury trials are the norm.  But a new analysis of federal court cases indicates that the trend is actually moving in a different direction.

A story in “The New York Times” last Sunday showed, in 1997, of the 63,000 federal defendants, 3,200 were convicted in jury trials.  But by 2015, even as the number of federal defendants grew to 81,000, jury convictions dropped by half to just 1,650.

Reporter Benjamin Weiser wrote the story and he joins me now from Maine to help us understand what’s going on.

So, Benjamin, what is driving this decline?

BENJAMIN WEISER, NEW YORK TIMES:  There appear to be a lot of reasons.  People particularly pointed out to me the sentencing guidelines which Congress passed a number of years ago, mandatory minimum sentences which set a floor for certain crimes under which someone cannot receive a sentence.  And as a result, there was at least, for a period and remains, an incentive that drives many defendants to decide that it — you know, after a risk-benefit analysis, that it makes much more sense to plead guilty and take their risks at perhaps getting a lower sentence than if they go to trial and are convicted.

BRANGHAM:  Is there a down side to this?  I mean, just offhand, I can imagine some pretty considerable savings to taxpayers if we don’t have an endless amount of jury trials going on.  What’s the down side here?

WEISER:  You know, the most patrol issue that people pointed out to me, including a number of judges, is that so much in the criminal justice system does not happen in public but the one thing that does is a trial.  And when you see a criminal trial before a jury, everything is out there.  The government’s evidence is tested.  The defense, of course, gets its best shot.  The public gets to see what’s happening.

And this is particularly important.  And I have seen this in recent political corruption trials, for example, where the government got to lay out the evidence it was bringing.  Without trials, with only pleas, plea bargains, much of that happens behind closed doors and several judges to me said it’s very disappointing that as the number of trials disappear, the public nature of what happens in the courthouse also vanishes.

BRANGHAM:  Is the concern that this just tips the balance in well, too much in favor of prosecutions because their evidence never really gets scrutinized in court?

WEISER:  Well, some people say that, and there’s a debate.  Prosecutors bring cases, and they would argue that they bring only the strongest cases, the cases that they believe they can win at trial.  Defense lawyers often feel that from an ethical perspective, it really makes sense for their defendant to plead guilty if they really think they’re going to get convicted at trial.  And to some extent, the number of pleas that are hammered out allow the system to keep moving forward.

But it is a fact that there are fewer criminal jury trials, and this number has actually been going down over the last 20, 30, 40 years.  It just happens that in the Manhattan federal courthouse that I’ve been covering, it seemed particularly pronounced in recent months, and I began asking about it at the time.

BRANGHAM:  One of the negatives of this, as you quote in your story is a lot of federal judge just feel that their jobs are incredibly boring.  But are there other up sides to this, not having so many trials?

WEISER:  It certainly is true, for a defendant a plea to perhaps one charge that does not carry, in the case we wrote about, a mandatory minimum sentence, allows a defendant not to spend as much time in prison as he might have had he gone to trial and been convicted.  So, certainly, there was an upside there.

And in the case we cited, the defense lawyer who I quoted said that, you know, this defendant really had no choice.  He had been charged with two counts.  One had a mandatory minimum of 20 years.  The other had no mandatory minimum.

However, the defense lawyer felt that their case was triable, that elements of it were weak, and that there might have been a shot at least, you know, make something progress on in the courtroom, but that would be never tested.

BRANGHAM:  As you report in your story, these mandatory minimums have been loosened somewhat recently.  So, is there any sense that this trend is going to change at all?

WEISER:  It is a fact that the number of trials has diminished in the federal court in Manhattan.  I also found that that data was exactly the same in New York state, statewide, in the state courts over the last 10, 20 years, and the federal courts dating back to 1980 nationally are seeing the same trend.  I don’t know how it’s going to change or if it’s going to change.  It’s a tough question.

BRANGHAM:  All right.  Benjamin Weiser of “The New York Times” — thanks very much for being here.

WEISER:  Thank you for having me.

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