The Jury Can No Longer Sentence You! Yay?
Yes folks, that’s right. If you elect to be tried by a jury of your peers, and ultimately they find you guilty, there’s no need to worry as much anymore.
The Virginia delegation just ended a special session to address several issues. One of them being part of the criminal justice reform movement which affects what a jury could do if they found someone guilty in a criminal trial.
So, first some history to bring you up to speed. Most of you have not been arrested before. At best, you’re a former client whom I represented for a traffic matter. If you are charged with a criminal offense, your case is first brought before the general district court of the county in which you’re charged. Whether it’s a misdemeanor (punishable up to 1 year) or a felony (punishable by at least 1 year), your case starts off in the general district court, which is the lowest level court in Virginia. Your case will be heard by a judge only at this level or stage of prosecution. Only if your misdemeanor case goes south and you’re found guilty, you can appeal your case within 10 calendar days and request a jury trial in the next higher level of court which is the circuit court. Your case would also proceed to the circuit court and you could request a jury trial if you had a felony charge and your case is certified by a judge in a preliminary hearing. That basically means a judge will decide that there is probable cause that a crime was committed and to let your case continue up to the circuit court so that a judge or jury can decide your guilt or innocence. In these cases, even if you requested a trial by judge, the prosecutor can ask for a jury trial. Why would they do that? Because Virginia was one of two states where a jury levies the sentence when they find the defendant guilty.
A jury in Virginia, by law, has to sentence someone within the range of punishment that the statute dictates. A judge could reduce the jury’s sentence, but that only happens about 8% of the time. Most often, a trial by judge may yield a higher conviction rate (meaning you are found guilty) but a lower sentence (such as less jail time), because quite frankly the judge is an educated legal mind who has been around the block. More often than not, they’ll dole out the appropriate punishment because they’re not always bound by a law that says they have to give a certain range of punishment.
So, the Virginia delegation did what many proponents, such as myself have been pushing for, real criminal justice reform. No longer will someone who exercises their RIGHT to trial by jury be subjected to excessive sentences determined by an often legally inexperienced jury. Now, we can leave the right or wrong up to the jury, but let the judge decide what is the appropriate punishment.
Is this a good thing? I think so. Can it have unwanted repercussions? Certainly. I’ve had my share of jury trials, but the possibility of a jury getting the sentence wrong has sometimes deterred me from pursuing a jury trial. Though it is not my decision and ultimately my client’s decision to have a jury trial, I hope that when this law takes effect, I’ll have an opportunity to try another case with a jury knowing that if they end up convicting my client, that the punishment will be more fair and proportioned coming from the judge rather than the jury.