Jury trials may become a more popular option for defendants after July 1.
That summer date will mark the enactment of a new law giving defendants convicted at jury trials the choice to be sentenced by a judge or the jury that convicted then. The law is a piece of criminal justice reform, overturning the involvement in sentencing that juries have had in Virginia since the late 1700s.
“This is the most transformational piece of criminal justice reform to be passed in Virginia in a generation,” Senator Joseph Morrisey, who sponsored the bill during last year’s General Assembly, said. The bill was a topic of conversation during a special legislative session focused on criminal justice and police reform. It officially became law when the governor signed it in the fall.
Those in favor of the change point to juries handing down stiffer sentences, making many defendants opt out of having a jury trial. They say the law makes the option of a jury trial one of less risk. Juries in Virginia aren’t given state sentencing guidelines noting what a typical sentence would be a particular crime. According to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission (VCSC) in fiscal year 2020, sentences in jury cases went above the guidelines 40% of the time. Only 7.2% of sentences in non-jury cases went above the guidelines. In fiscal year 2019, sentences handed down by juries went above sentencing guidelines 37% of the time compared to 7.4% of non-jury cases, and in fiscal year 2018, juries exceeded sentencing guidelines nearly 50% of the time compared to 8.7% of non-jury cases. In the 16th Judicial District, which Madison, Orange and Greene counties belong to, sentences by judges is fiscal year 2020 complied with guidelines 81% of the time. The sentences exceeded guidelines 8% of the time and were less than the guidelines 12% of the time.
Opponents say the bill will lead to a spike in jury trials across the state leading to increased costs and delays, especially in a time when the court calendars are already full with matters that have been continued thanks to the months long ban on jury trials related to COVID-19. According to VCSC data, since fiscal year 1986 there has been a generally declining trend in the percentage of jury trials among felony convictions in circuit courts. Since fiscal year 2020, the percentage of jury convictions has remained less than 2%. It remains to be seen if that percentage will increase when the new law goes into effect.
Late last month, Madison County Circuit Court Clerk Leeta Louk said the court’s calendar is already fairly full. She’s suggesting 2022 dates for those scheduling jury trials.
Madison County Commonwealth’s Attorney Clarissa Berry said the idea behind the law is that judges take into account their legal knowledge, including sentencing guidelines, when handing down a sentence. She said they also are able to suspend portions of a sentence. With a jury it’s more of an emotional argument, she said.
She said the change is part of a criminal justice reform push, but without mental health reform and real mental health help, it’s unlikely to make much an impact.