A lawyer in a courtroom talking to the jury.

Jury Sentencing Reform Hits Virginia in July of 2021

Since the late 1700s, juries have been able to sentence convicted criminals in Virginia, an act that has received heavy criticism. Many argue that it is a rigged system, used to manipulate alleged criminals and limit their choices.

Staring July 1, 2021, jury sentencing is going to change. It will still be an option, but it will not be the only option for those that are charged and convicted by a jury of their peers. . Let’s take a look at what jury sentencing is, how it has been misused, and how it will be different going forward.

Problems with the Old System

Criminal courts across the country use the same, basic steps. After a judge or jury finds someone guilty, the case moves to the next phase, which is sentencing. Sentencing hearings are where criminal penalties are decided and enforced. In the state of Virginia, the jury decides what the punishment will be if they have found someone guilty of an offense. This was how the system worked every time a jury was the one deciding the outcome of a case. If a judge disagreed with the jury’s decision, they could reduce the sentence, but the sentence could not be enhanced. While a judge has the ability to reduce a jury sentence, many judges in Virginia are reluctant to do this.

Not all cases were tried before a jury. When a case was tried before the Judge and the person was convicted, then a presentence report was usually ordered and a sentencing hearing date would be set where the Judge would review sentencing guidelines if they applied, the presentence report, and any other information that the Commonwealth Attorney or Defense put forth for consideration. A defendant has a constitutional right to a jury trial but even if they waive that right, a Commonwealth Attorney or a judge in Virginia could decide the case should be set for a jury trial, whether the accused wanted a jury or not.

Uninformed Juries

Criminal advocates have long argued that Virginia’s system was stacked against alleged criminals. Juries are filled with citizens drawn from that county and may not have extensive knowledge of the law. They can only make decisions based on what they are told by the Judge and based on the evidence presented to them during the trial, making it difficult for them to consider other information when deciding on penalties.

Juries did not use to be able to know what the sentencing ranges were as they considered whether to convict someone or not. However, starting July 1, 2020, potential jurors can be informed of the sentencing ranges for the charges. The jurors can also be questioned during voir dire about their ability to render a fair and impartial verdict Every criminal offense in Virginia has a sentence that is predetermined. For example, robbery has a minimum sentence of at least five years in prison. This means if a jury convicted someone of robbery the least amount of time they could give the person was five years in prison while judges have the authority to consider sentencing guidelines. Sentencing guidelines are recommendations only to the judge; they are not mandatory. The sentencing guidelines take into account the particular charges, the record for the person charged, prior incarcerations, injury to the victim, and various other factors. So even though five years could be the least amount of time a jury could give a judge could sentence below that based on the recommendations or argument of counsel. Juries are not informed about sentencing guidelines.

Reluctant Judges

Judges are aware that they can assign a lighter sentence for those convicted of criminal offenses. They have the power to reduce a jury’s sentence. However, reductions like these happen rarely. Judges tend to view the system through the lens of the jury. If the jury decided something, the judges want to honor it.

Manipulative Prosecutors

This is where the system became corrupted. Activists have accused prosecutors of coercing alleged criminals into guilty pleas by using the threat of a jury trial. Under the old system, prosecutors had the power to force a defendant into having their case tried by a jury which could result in harsher penalties if the person was convicted. According to critics, prosecutors did this by saying take this plea agreement or plead guilty or else we will request a jury trial. Prosecutors would use this fear to their advantage and often times someone accused of a crime would accept a plea agreement in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence, and the prosecutor got the guilty conviction they wanted all along.

Figures seem to support accusations of a corrupted system. In 2019, a staggering 90% of all criminal convictions came from a guilty plea. Jury trials represented only 1.3% of all convictions, and the remaining 8.7% came from a trial before a judge with no jury. It appears that the accused were systemically refusing the right to their day in court.

The New System

On July 1st of this year, everything will change. Defendants convicted of crimes will be able to choose how they would like to be sentenced. Their penalties can come from a judge or from the jury. It cannot be understated how monumental this change is. Not only will it lead to more trials and fewer innocent people taking pleas, there will be less fear of manipulation by prosecutors and also allow a person changed to have more control over their decision to plead guilty or not guilty. Once convicted of a crime, especially a felony, people lose a significant portion of their rights. Having a say over their future is a powerful thing for convicted individuals.

The Law Office of Ann Thayer, PLLC will keep a close eye on the criminal justice system when these laws change. We are committed to protecting the rights of Virginians. If you need help with sentencing concerns, call us today at (703) 940-0001, or contact us online.