Twelve Absent Men: Rebuilding the American Jury

Albert W. Dzur in the Boston Review:

Dzur_featureLay citizens no longer have opportunities to play decisive roles in our justice system. Judicial business is handled every day in most courthouses, but weeks can pass without a jury being empanelled.

And though consistently given high approval ratings as an institution in public opinion surveys, the jury feels dead to many who do serve. When it does actually take to court, the jury often seems an appendage of the criminal justice administrative complex, netted in formalities, rules, and procedures. The legal action, at least up to the time of deliberation, is elsewhere. Writing about an impressive federal courthouse in Boston that opened in 1998, legal scholar Judith Resnik notes that only seven or eight trials were held in each of the building’s courts in its inaugural year, and the number has since declined. The lights are off as much as they are on in trial courts across the country.

Until the early 20th century, the jury was the standard way Americans handled criminal cases, but today we operate largely without it. It has been supplanted by plea agreements, settlements, summary judgments, and other non-trial forums that are usually more efficient and cost-effective in the short term. In addition to cost and efficiency, justice officials worry about juror competence in the face of scientific and technical evidence and expert testimony, further diminishing the opportunity for everyday people to serve.

The result is that juries in the United States today hear a small fraction of cases. In 2005 the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that juries heard 4 percent of all alleged criminal offenses brought before federal courts. State courts match this trend.

More here.