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Jury: Behavioral Aspects - The Role Of The Jury In The Criminal Justice System

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Most criminal cases, even in the United States, end in dismissals or guilty pleas. In addition, if the case does go to trial and the defendant does not exercise the right to a jury trial, it will be decided by a judge. An estimated 150,000 jury trials occur in state courts and an additional 10,000 (half of them criminal trials) in federal courts. Yet the influence of the jury extends far beyond the trials it actually decides. The terms of a plea agreement and the decision to let a judge decide the case are based on what attorneys and defendants anticipate would happen if the case were decided by a jury.

The jury also plays a political role in the criminal justice system. In addition to deciding cases, the jury is a potential source of legitimacy for the legal system. To the extent that the jury is viewed as representing a fair cross-section of the community, its verdict is likely to be seen as the product of fair consideration and can carry a legitimacy that the decision of the judge, as an employee of the state, may lack. Even when the jury's verdict is unpopular, and even if observers believe that the jury does not fairly represent the community, the jury acts as a lightning rod, insulating the judge and other parts of the state legal system from criticism.

The jury also can act as a conduit for community standards. For example, in evaluating a claim of self-defense, the jury must determine what a reasonable person would be expected to believe, as well as what the particular defendant did believe. Although the jury is charged with applying the law it receives from the judge to the facts, this example illustrates the fuzziness of the division between law and facts. The jury must often inject its understanding of appropriate standards into its fact-finding even while scrupulously following the instructions that the judge provides.

A final political role for the jury is its educative function, identified by Alexis de Toqueville as the jury's great strength. Surveys suggest that more than one-half of American adults have had some personal involvement with the courts; of this sub-group, half have served on a jury. Citizens also receive information and misinformation on the courts from other sources, including the media. The extent to which jury service provides additional or corrective information is unclear, but jury experience tends to make jurors feel more positive about the jury system.

Jury: Behavioral Aspects - Judge Versus Jury [next]

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over 7 years ago

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