The role of a jury in a criminal justice system is for the group of individuals to reach a verdict. Their decision should be based upon the facts presented on behalf of an individual charged with criminal conduct. It is what makes the adversarial justice system effective Instead of determining issues of law, they are looking at components of information.
Legal matters are decided by judges. Issues of fact are determined by the average person. It is a straightforward division of labor that seeks to balance facts with the law.
Since a jury is comprised of ordinary members of the public, the verdicts are more likely to be deemed as acceptable by the rest of society. Instead of seeing these individuals as elite legal purists, it is easier to see oneself in that same situation trying to make a similar decision.
Juries can also be swayed to look outside of the facts as part of their decision-making process. Because the judicial system is adversarial, prosecutors and defense attorneys can also play to a person’s biases about certain situations. That’s why the pros and cons of a jury system deserve a periodic review.
List of the Pros of the Jury System
1. The jury system works by using a group of people from the community.
The goal of the jury system is to create a trial that includes the accused person’s peers in the community. Although this goal isn’t always possible because of the nature of a crime or a person’s identity, it is possible to create a random sampling of individuals that can evaluate the facts of the case with an objective eye. Most criminal justice systems allow for prosecutors and defendants to have limited removal power over the formation of the jury so that it can seem fair to both sides in the case.
2. It works to eliminate the issue of bias within the justice system.
When there is a large enough of a jury in place for a criminal proceeding, then the numbers help to cancel out the potential for bias. Although this advantage is not 100% certain, the goal of gathering 12 or more people together to decide a case creates a discussion around the facts and their merit. It is less likely that one person with a particular bias against an individual can influence the decision-making process.
3. The jury system allows citizens to perform acts of civic duty.
Civic duty is a responsibility expected from all members of society. It is an obligation to serve in return for receiving specific rights or protections. By taking the time to serve on a jury, then you receive the right to a jury trial in return should something happen in your life that would bring charges your way. These duties uphold democratic values around the world, but most civic duties involve paying taxes, obeying the law, or voting. The United States considers registering with the Selective Service as part of this obligation. Serving on a jury is another way to safeguard these rights.
4. The process of voir dire allows for more impartiality in the process.
Juries are groups of people sworn to render a verdict in court based on the evidentiary facts presented to them. If a court must select a jury for a trial, then members of the community become potential jurors from a list collected from voter registrations, ID renewals, or driver’s licenses. Judges and lawyers have the opportunity to question each one to see if they can be fair and impartial. If the prosecution or defense does not believe this to be possible for that individual, then they can dismiss them from service. This process is called voir dire, which helps to create an impartial jury.
5. Jury verdicts have a high degree of correlation for the criminal justice system.
The rate of false imprisonment in the United States is relatively low, with former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once writing that American criminal convictions have a 99.973% success rate. This ratio comes from the number of known exonerations at the time of his opinion, with it apply to a subset of violent crime incidents. Juries have a reputation for getting their verdicts correct, even if the lawyers involved in the case might disagree. Although some judges have the power to set aside such a decision, most people will accept the outcome because the jury is a representation of the entire community.
6. People must be of a specific age before they can serve on a jury.
A jury trial is an important right of citizenship in the United States and many other democratic countries. It is considered an adult responsibility, so it only applies to someone when they reach the age of 18. Even in districts where driver’s licenses or other forms of ID can be issued at age 16 or younger, you must reach the age of majority before taking on this responsibility. That means there is a guarantee of maturity that comes into the courtroom even though the mix of people comes from random selection.
7. There are size minimums that the legal system must follow.
The United States requires a final jury to have 12 members in a federal criminal trial. There can also be one or more alternates as part of that process, but only the original dozen will participate in the eventual decision-making steps. When there is a federal civil trial that takes place, the final jury can have 12 people, but it cannot be any smaller than six individuals.
The reason for this structure is that it allows a representation of the community to take part in the decision-making process instead of a single person. Allowing the judge to decide without any input could create the perception that the decision is out of touch with the expectations of society.
List of the Cons of the Jury System
1. A jury can convict someone based on bias instead of facts.
The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the conviction of an African-American man for a quadruple murder after his sixth trial on those charges in June 2019. Their findings came about because they found that the prosecutor unlawfully blocked potential jurors from the same heritage. The ruling was 7-2 and written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Although the ruling doesn’t stop the state from putting Curtis Flowers on trial for the seventh time, the justices noted that black jurors were struck from the pool in all of the trials.
Lawyers can stack a jury in their favor so that their desired outcome takes place. It is far easier for a prosecutor to do this than a defendant in most jurisdictions, which means a jury can still convict someone based on their bias instead of the facts involved in the case.
2. Capital cases and violent felonies have a high rate of false convictions.
In a 2014 study by Samuel Gross, Barbara O’Brien, Chen Hu, and Edward Kennedy, the group applied survival analysis to model the effect of convicted innocent criminal defendants. Their estimate came to the conclusion that if all of the people sentenced to death were to remain alive until their natural death, then over 4% would be eventually exonerated.
Death sentences in the United States represent less than 0.1% of prison sentences in the country, but they represented 12% of known exonerations from 1989-2012. Although more resources go into capital cases before and after conviction, it is essential to remember that 95% of American felony convictions come from negotiated pleas.
3. Lawyers and judges come from a subset of society.
Even though anyone can decide that they want to be a judge or an attorney, most of the people who make it through law school come from a privileged segment of society. The current cost of attending a private law school is over $43,000 per year when averaging the figure over almost 200 law programs. If you were to attend a public law school in the United States, then the cost would be over $26,000 per year for in-state students and almost $40,000 annually for out-of-state enrollees.
That’s one of the reasons why only 23% of law school graduates say that the cost of their education was worthwhile. Most new attorneys either go into business for themselves, start on the lowest rung at a legal firm, or become public defendants. They might not earn as much in their first year of work as they paid for an entire year of schooling. That’s why judges and attorneys are often seen as being in an elite segment of society.
4. A juror doesn’t need to reason their decision.
There are some exceptions to this disadvantage, but most of the democracies that allow jury trials do not require individuals to provide a reason for their decision. If one person decides that a charged defendant is guilty or innocent, then they have the power to sway the entire trial. The verdict that comes back must be unanimous unless there are exceptions written into the legal code that allows for a different outcome.
That means someone not convinced of a person’s guilt can keep someone from going to prison. It also gives a juror the power to prevent a guilty individual from going to jail because they can “hang” the jury.
5. Some jurisdictions allow for a majority vote instead of a unanimous verdict.
There are 48 states out of 50 that currently require a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant through a jury trial. The two that fall outside of that figure are Louisiana and Oregon. These jurisdictions allow a jury to render a decision with 10 or 11 votes instead of all of them. Before 1974, a conviction could be secured in a 9-3 vote in Louisiana under the assumption that if one or two African-Americans were on a jury, it would be necessary to outvote them.
Oregon began allowing guilty verdicts with 10 votes after a 1934 case when a lone juror held out for a defendant to take a first-degree murder charge down to manslaughter. Oregon doesn’t permit split verdicts in murder cases. Challenges to this structure have taken place over the last 40 years, but the Supreme Court has declined to revisit a 1972 ruling that permits them.
6. It can take a long time for a jury to reach a decision.
A magistrate or judge can come up with a decision in a few days. It is sometimes possible in a few hours. Jury deliberations usually take much longer than that if the merits of the case are debatable. During the 1992 civil trial of McClure v. City of Long Beach, the jury took 4.5 months to come up with a decision. The longest criminal trial in the UK took almost two years to complete, spending 20 months in a courtroom to eventually come up with a guilty verdict. The defendant in the case was jailed for 11 years.
7. Jury trials can create financial hardships for the people who serve.
A juror named “Julie” in the 20-month UK trial returned to her job in a travel agency after the case was over, but she did two days of training and two days of work. When you serve on a jury, then your income levels suffer. That can be problematic if you’re involved in a long trial. If you are a freelancer, the cost of transit expenses and the average pay of $22 per day isn’t enough to cover costs. Even federal jurors only receive $50 per day for long trials. Then the checks don’t go out until 30 days after completing your service.
You do have the option to claim financial hardship, but some jurisdictions only allow you to ask for an exemption after you’ve shown up for jury duty. There is no guarantee that you’ll receive a postponement or dismissal either, even if you have financial hardships to consider.
Jury trials go back as far as the 11th century with the history of the Norman Conquest in the UK. The first modern form of this criminal justice structure was put into use in the court of Henry II during the 12th century. That means the advantages of a jury system have been viewed as outweighing the disadvantages of it for over 800 years.
The pros and cons of the jury system show that there are faults. It is possible to convict someone who is innocent because people can misinterpret the facts. People can also manipulate this system for their personal benefit, but the structure of it creates a high degree of correlation so that the correct outcome occurs.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.