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August 3, 2022

"Juries, Democracy, and Petty Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper authored by J.D. King now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The right to trial by jury in criminal cases is basic to the design of American criminal justice and to the structure of American government. Guaranteed by Article III of the Constitution, the Sixth Amendment, and every one of the original state constitutions, the criminal jury was seen as critically important not only to the protection of individual rights but also to the architecture of American democracy.  The vast majority of criminal prosecutions today, however, are resolved without even the prospect of community review by a jury.  Despite the textual clarity of the guarantee, the Supreme Court has long recognized a “petty offense” exception to the right to trial by jury.

As systems of mass adjudication and hyper-incarceration have developed over the past several decades, a parallel process of collateral consequences has also arisen and is now well-documented.  Recognizing that a conviction for even a low-level offense can have devastating effects, some courts have begun to narrowly interpret the “petty offense” exception, especially where a conviction could have severe immigration-related consequences.  As a result, some jurisdictions now provide stronger procedural protections for non-citizen defendants than for citizen defendants charged with similar offenses.  Although these courts are certainly correct in characterizing these offenses as “serious” and thereby providing those defendants a right to a jury trial, their reasoning imports a defendant-specific subjectivity that is in tension with prior Supreme Court guidance, and the results pose questions of legitimacy as different defendants are treated differently because of citizenship status.

As advocates push to expand the right to trial by jury, the Supreme Court should revisit the “petty offense” exception in light of the expansive web of collateral consequences that has developed in the past few decades.  In Ramos v. Louisiana, the Court grappled with the question of stare decisis and overruled decades-old precedent on the constitutionality of non-unanimous jury verdicts, recognizing that the Court should be most willing to reconsider precedent in cases involving constitutional criminal procedure. At the same time, state legislatures should address the problem by extending the state right to jury trials to cover all criminal prosecutions.  The implications of such changes would extend beyond a procedural reform that would affect the rights of individual defendants.  Expansion of the jury trial right would constitute a meaningful structural reform in democratizing criminal justice at a time when such change is needed to establish the popular legitimacy of the criminal justice system.

August 3, 2022 at 01:50 PM | Permalink

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