“Inviolate” Right to Jury Trials Undermined by High Plea Rate

Colorado’s Constitution states, “The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate in criminal cases” (Article II, Section 23).

How does that square with the fact that 97.6 percent of all Colorado felony convictions result from plea bargains, not jury trials?

Today’s Colorado Springs Gazette features my article on the subject. My thesis is this: “By threatening the accused with drastically more severe potential penalties if they exercise their right to a trial by jury, prosecutors undermine that right and sometimes compel the innocent to plead guilty.”

The statistics on which my article was based come from a document requested by the Independence Institute under the Colorado Open Records Act. I’ve put the entire Excel document on my web page.

I summarize some of the major findings as follows:

Colorado criminal statistics for the years 2006 through 2011 show that Colorado prosecutors rely on plea bargains to reach convictions an overwhelming 97.6 percent of the time, according to documents obtained by the Independence Institute through a Colorado Open Records Act request.

According to those documents, only 4,241 felony convictions resulted from a jury trial, or 2.4 percent of the total of 175,015 felony convictions. A total of 6,101 felony cases went to trial, so the conviction rate at trial was 70 percent.

Drug cases accounted for 54,321 felony filings (23 percent) of 238,987 total filings. In terms of convictions, drug cases accounted for 43,034 (25 percent) of the total. Of the 790 drug cases that went to trial, 611 resulted in a conviction, meaning that only 1.4 percent of drug convictions resulted from a jury trial.

In the article, I cite an ABC News report as well as a New York Times article.

My hope is that the report will spur other journalists and researchers to examine the figures for previous years in Colorado as well as for other states, and then to dig deeper into long-term trends and modern practices.

Image: Creative Commons by Andrew Bardwell

2 thoughts on ““Inviolate” Right to Jury Trials Undermined by High Plea Rate”

  1. You have an inviolate right to a jury trial, but you can not be forced to go to trial if you’d rather plea. Any right can be waived. By pleading, you waive your right to a jury trial – among many others.

    Now, prosecutorial misconduct in overcharging criminal violations is certainly a problem – but not a right to jury trial problem.

  2. I’m a little surprised by your position, Dave. By your reasoning, the legislature could impose a mandatory lifetime sentence in prison for all felonies, unless the accused pleads guilty, and that would in no way violate the right to a jury trial. Likewise, the government could tax books at a high rate, and that in no way violate the right of free speech. But obviously the legislature can infringe our rights in indirect ways.

Comments are closed.