As originally pinned in The Providence Journal*
Zero. That’s how many people were convicted by a federal jury in Rhode Island last year. The state’s federal judges handed out dozens of prison sentences, amounting to hundreds of years, yet not a single year of prison resulted from a jury verdict. So much for the vaunted Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
Which, by the way, is still in the Constitution, prominently featured in the middle of the Bill of Rights. It’s just apparently not worth all that much these days. After all, defendants appearing in Rhode Island federal court opted to accept over four years in prison, on average, rather than utilize their right to trial.
What the heck is going on here? Why are defendants choosing prison and waiving their right to trial? It’s a direct result of the so-called “trial penalty,” which has undermined the weight of the Sixth Amendment.
The trial penalty refers to the substantially longer sentence a defendant tends to get after a trial compared to what they could receive with a guilty plea. This stems from the fact that prosecutors can leverage their discretion over criminal charges, some that might carry mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing guidelines, to create plea offers that bear little resemblance to likely post-trial outcomes.
While some of this difference is justified — a defendant ought to earn a shorter sentence for accepting responsibility for their actions — in practice, it can be that disparity of outcome can be so vast as to make defendants’ exercise of their right to trial incredibly risky, if not outright foolhardy. Sure, a trial might result in an acquittal and freedom, but a defense counsel will explain that it’s too often not worth taking that chance if the potential sentence starts getting measured in decades instead of years if it’s a conviction.
At the same time, it’s not just defendants who are scared of jury trials. Sometimes it’s prosecutors who aren’t willing to risk the outcome. Outlandishly high conviction rates and a win-at-all-costs mentality can easily transform into the prosecution’s fear of acquittal. If a case is too difficult — or a defendant too well-resourced — the path of least resistance for prosecutors is to simply take a lesser plea or get rid of the case entirely, even if that’s not a true representation of justice.
These costs born from these decisions do not rest solely with defendants. Without trials to reveal witness testimony and other evidence, government missteps or outright misconduct can be too easily swept under the rug. Likewise, if the deck is too stacked against the exercise of the right to trial, then even innocent defendants become incentivized to plead guilty, potentially ensuring that an actual guilty party is still walking free without consequence.
The trial penalty is hardly a problem confined to Rhode Island. The Northern District of New York, which includes Albany and Syracuse, shared an (im)perfect record of securing every single conviction with a guilty plea last year. Nationally, federal prosecutors earned 98.3% of their convictions in fiscal year 2021 via guilty plea.
To reinforce the fundamental right to trial begins with removing coercive elements from the plea process. This means repeal of mandatory minimums and other sentences that set up plea offers that no reasonable defendant, including innocent defendants, can refuse without assuming tremendous risk. Similarly, prosecutors should revise the practice of applying undue pressure on defendants to plead guilty, such as overcharging defendants and delaying the transfer of evidence.
The zeroing out of juries in Rhode Island’s federal convictions may seem like a distant concern to the average law-abiding citizen. But an unexercised right to trial soon atrophies, leaving it too weak to ensure the legitimacy and integrity of the criminal justice process. And the costs of that to people and public safety are too great to ignore.