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"Why Jury Trials are becoming less common" PBS NewsHour 8/13/2016


SUMMARY:  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.

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 central 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.

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