While there is no comprehensive study on the subject, it is a generally accepted fact that within the United States justice system, about 10% (or less) of people charged with a crime will ever have a jury hear his or her case.
The reasons for this seemingly low figure are plentiful. Below are the three most common reasons that help to explain the 10% figure.
Reason #1 – It’s Rare for Prosecutors to Seek the Maximum Penalty (or Unusually Severe Sentence)
These types of cases make up the majority of matters that proceed to jury trial, and the reasoning behind them is simple: when a prosecutor in a murder case, for example, seeks the maximum punishment allowed by state law (i.e., the death penalty in some states or life in prison without parole in others), the defendant has no risk in proceeding to defend himself before a jury. Because the prosecutor is not offering any type of incentive for the defendant to enter into a plea agreement, these types of cases will always be decided by 12 peers of the defendant.
Reason #2 – Prosecutors and Judges Want to Avoid Clogging Up the Court System
If fair plea agreements being offered were routinely unfair or overly harsh, too many trials would occur. While crime prevention is incredibly important to almost everyone in 2013, governments do not have unlimited money to see every case through to trial (it is estimated that a jury trial costs local governments $5,000 per day).
Prosecutors and judges need to conserve resources by providing an incentive (through a reasonable settlement offer) that will convince the vast majority of those accused of criminal conduct to accept an agreement and enter a guilty or no contest plea. These reasonable offers free up valuable courtrooms, court staff, prosecutors and judges to try cases that have no realistic prospect of settlement.
Reason #3 – The Prosecution’s Case Falls Apart
Although this is the outcome is somewhat less common, there are times when the prosecutor has a problem proving his or her case (such as the chain of custody for an important piece of evidence, or weak evidence to begin with). Fourth Amendment violations resulting in law enforcement obtaining evidence that will be ruled inadmissible also occurs sporadically. The same potential problems can be found when confessions are ruled inadmissible because they were obtained without the famously known Miranda warnings.