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Opening Arguments

Are you kidding? I have no peers

This isn't exactly startling, but it is worrisome:

The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers may be the cornerstone of the American legal system, but it’s being exercised with less frequency in the state’s trial courts, according to a massive report released Monday.

Of the hundreds of thousands of civil and criminal cases that made their way through the courts in Indiana in 2012, only 1,334 cases were decided by a jury. That’s down from the 1,514 jury trials in 2010 and down from the 2,015 jury trials held in 2002.

Increasingly, cases are being disposed of in other ways, from guilty pleas and deferred prosecutions in criminal matters to mediation in civil cases.

When I was selected for the jury pool in the David Bisard case, I got a lengthy questionnaire to fill out; several questions on it had to do with my opinion about the good and bad in the criminal justice system. In answer to one of the questions, I wrote something like "I think plea bargaining is relied on too much, but I try not to be obsessive about it." If I were answering the question today, I might add, "but I easily could be."

The story quotes Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson, who zeroes in on what is most troubling about the trend:

Yet he also voiced some concern about fewer jury trials, saying it means fewer people are participating in the judicial system as jurors and that’s lessening public exposure to how the justice system works. “The jury trial is the lifeblood of the American judicial system,” Dickson said, later adding: “The public confidence in the jury system is crucial.”

One reason for all the plea baraing is, of course, the expense. According to news accounts, the three trials of a former Indiana State trooper accused of killing his family cost Floyd County an estimated $4.5 million over 13 years. Who knows what the David Bisard case will end up costing Marion County? No county in Indiana can afford to absorb the costs of a whole lot of jury trials.

But a main reason is that prosecutors have come to rely on it and think the whole system would grind to a halt without bargaining. I'm not sure about that. I guess I wouldn't advocate dropping plea bargaining altogether, but I'd like to see prosecutors relying on it less.