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Whether State or Federal, Most Convictions Are Overwhelmingly Based on Guilty Pleas

by Ed Lyon

Readers of Criminal Legal News and Prison Legal News are familiar with the fact that criminal convictions occur mostly as a result of guilty or no-contest pleas.

A recently released report by the Pew Research Center confirms a steady erosion of citizens asserting their right to a jury trial over the past 20 years. “Only 2% of federal criminal defendants go to trial, and most who do are found guilty” is the headline.

In 1998, 4,710 cases went to jury trial. In 2018, this number dropped more than half to 1,879.

In raw percentages, the 1998 number represented 7 percent of the cases actually tried, dropping to 2 percent of the criminal cases actually tried in 2018.

A look at the federal statistics specific to 2018 reveals that a full 90 percent of all criminal convictions occurred through guilty pleas. Of the remaining 10 percent, 80 percent of those cases were ultimately dismissed prior to trial. Of the 20 percent of the remaining cases that were actually tried, a whopping 83 percent resulted in convictions with 17 percent resulting in acquittal.

For the 38 percent of those who chose to forego a jury in favor of having their case heard by a judge, a verdict of acquittal was returned. Jury trials returned acquittals in just 14 percent of the cases tried before them. During that year, 12 percent of tried cases went before judges, while 88 percent went before juries.

Defendants in state criminal proceedings fared even worse, on average, than did their peers in the federal arena. Because of procedural differences and other vagaries, aggregate data from state courts are not available for comparison purposes.

However, data from individual states are available. From 2017, the latest year that a complete set of data are available, criminal defendants in Texas fared the worst with only 0.86 percent of cases going to trial. Next was Pennsylvania with 1.11 percent, California with 1.25 percent, Ohio with 1.27 percent, Florida with 1.53 percent, North Carolina with 1.66 percent, Michigan with 2.12 percent, and New York with 2.91 percent.

With the number of federal cases in 2017 that went to trial at 3 percent, the conclusion drawn here is that even more state criminal defendants are ceding their right to jury trials than their peers in the federal system.

Possible reasons for this trend cited by the study are shrinking pools of panelists for jurors and the so-called “trial penalty.” The trial penalty is the phenomenon where higher percentages of convictions with harsher punishments are the usual result for cases tried verses cases pled. 



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