Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Prosecutor stats show few Texas jury trials

The statistics are a little dated, but I ran across an interesting database compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics where you can search by state and county to get local prosecutor caseload stats - not too detailed, but broken down by felony and misdemeanor cases, including how many jury trials the office conducted.

Searching around a bit one notices in particular how few jury trials occur given the large volume of cases in Texas' large counties. In Harris County, for example, 636 felony cases went to verdict in 2001 out of about 29,000 convictions. In Dallas County defendants were twice as likely to see a jury: That same year they saw 749 jury verdicts out of about 17,348 convictions.

Statewide, less than 1% of all criminal convictions in Texas result from jury trials. So apparently you're a lot more likely to get a jury trial in Dallas County (>4%) than elsewhere, or at least you were five years ago. I wonder if that's a function of Dallas having a public defender office? Maybe that's why defendants' right to a jury trial is more commonly exercised there?

What else do you think might explain the difference? What's your opinion? For that matter, are more or fewer jury trials a good or a bad thing, and why?

UPDATE: See the response from The Wretched of the Earth, who opines that the Dallas PDs office
definitely has something to do with it. While some court-appointed attorneys surely do a great job on their cases, the motivation to just plea out an appointed case rather than take it to trial is undeniable. Especially in felony trials, court-appointed attorneys often get around $500 for each day of trial while the cost of going to trial is much more. It's a time-consuming, physically draining, and expensive ordeal. Sadly, far too many appointed attorneys avoid it by urging all their clients to take a deal rather than go to trial. That's the big advantage a public defender has on a court-appointed free world attorney - there's no financial incentive to plea.


Mike Howard said...

I think PD's definitely have something to do with it. I posted my thoughts about it on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I am a defense attorney in Travis county. The reason that there are so many plea deals accepted is that the prosecutors are able to threaten the defendants with long jail times if the defendants lose at trial. Prosecutors say "We'll give the defendant two years if he takes the deal, but if he forces us to go to trial, and we win, we'll ask the jury for 8 years." Most rational people aren't willing to risk the time. I would argue that this is coercive and therefore unconstitutional. However, with out plea deals, the entire system would shut down.

AlanBean said...

In the federal system, the defendant wins 3% of the time in narcotics trials. If my math is right, those chances are almost exactly as good as a contestant on Deal or No Deal picking the suitcase with $1 million (actually, a tad worse since there are 30 cases). Knowing that the defense almost always lose, defendants are in the position of the thug in Dirty Harry. The prosecutor says, "Being as I win 97% of the time and the sentence will be much worse if you go to trial, you have to ask yourself a question, 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, punk, do ya?" This is a form of not-so-subtle psychological torture. Occasionally an innocent defendant will take the deal simply because it is less awful than the alternative. I have noticed, however, that aggressive, larger-than-life, highly prepared defense attorneys win a lot more than 3% of the time. But then, they usually represent real criminals who can afford to shell out the big money. The system works pretty well for guilty clients since it discourages them from taking their chances with a jury (a move not in their best interest). But it also means the cops don't have to make airtight cases and, I mentioned, too many innocent people punt on a jury trial. The system assumes that every defendant is in fact guilty. Most DAs and a lot of judges seem to work on the same theory.

800 pound gorilla said...

Didn't conservative icon Edwin Meese state: "If you're a suspect then you're guilty"? I can see why someone whose home has been invaded and valuable possessions taken wanting someone [even if innocent] punished for this atrocity but why the outrage over some idiot injecting himself to feel good? Oh, and on the last statement, I can see the outrage when that someone is the law enforcement people paid to prevent that happening [asset forfeiture].

Anonymous said...

In Bexar County felony appointed attorneys are routinely paid substantially more for guilty pleas than for dismissals. The payment rules are unethically contingent upon result, with an unfavorable result being rewarded.

Bexar misdemeanor attorneys are paid 100 for a quick instant plea, or 100/day for a trial. This is the same fee they were paid in 1986, when a volume misdemeanor appointed practice was possible. Now there is one case at a time.

Many Bexar attorneys know that their role is to be a laxative for the docket.


John D. McLauchlan said...

I have to agree that on serious offenses the risk of getting hammered often makes those plea offers really attractive for the accused. It's always a judgment call. And always the defendant's ultimate decision to make.

With respect to the disparity in payments for dismissals versus pleas, I remember long ago as a private lawyer getting a pre-indictment appointment. Rather than run and cut a deal with the DA, after the first report out date with no indictment, I waited the case out to see what the grand jury would do. They eventually no billed my client. Good for my client, less good for me. The judge on the bench at the time didn't pay for no bills.

Anonymous said...

If you plead Not Guilty, and demand a trial; you have just done the worst thing in the world that you could do to piss off an entire governmental system: make them work! prosecutors, police, investigators, jurors, clerks n' jerks all now have to do their job. You're screwed......

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to review the trend in criminal caseloads per court in Texas to see how much they have increased over the last 20 or so years. (I don't say "if" they've increased, but "how much", because I am virtually certain that they number of courts have not kept up with the number of cases due to population increases alone.)

In the current system, ALL parties are under pressure to plead cases: judges' dockets grow larger when one case takes up days or weeks of undivided attention, thereby increasing their workload and expenses to the county; prosecutors' case files stack up on their desks while they dedicate their limited time and resources to a single case, making it difficult to keep victims and witnesses plugged into the system; and defense attorneys may actually lose money by having to pass up new clients or forego disposing of other clients' cases (and collecting their fees) while spending all their time in trial. All this works against a defendant's right to a jury trial (and many victims' wishes for their day in court, too).

Here's the point: each court is physically and temporally limited in the number of jury trials it can hear in a given year, and the more cases that are pending in each court, the less likely it is for any single case to ever go to a jury trial. Contrary to the breathless rantings of many com box posters, there is no sinister conspiracy -- it's simply a case of a bureaucratic government operating at its usual peak inefficiency.

Solution? More courts. More courts = more opportunities for jury trials. But this solution carries a cost, and frankly, most officeholders don't seem to think the benefit is worth the cost. And there's the rub, plain and simple. Don't look for it to change unless people force their elected representatives to add it to their list of priorities.

Anonymous said...


Your conclusion , I'll have to differ with. That is the same mentality that justifies more prisons and jails to support biased laws. How sad is it , that in the supposed freest country on earth, if one demands the rights and freedoms our forefathers died for. The very person charged with making justice happen for all , will threaten an American for doing so! I think all DA’s that threaten Americans for simply asking for their rights, should be sharing a jail cell with the very Americans they are SCREWING!!! As well as the Judges that knowingly let this BS happen!!!

Instead of more courts, how about laws that are fair and unbiased? If we did that we could solve both the problems in one move! No more over crowed jails, prison or courts!!!

Could the truth possibly be our tax payers have reached the limits of fear and propaganda tactics to support these bias based laws?? If the laws were free from bigotry and biases, the system wouldn't be over loaded!

Instead of looking for ways to support this BS, help look for ways to put and end to it!