12 Investigates: Growing number of guilty pleas

Published: Feb. 22, 2013 at 3:43 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 22, 2013 at 4:37 AM EST
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Despite what you see on TV, jury trials are rare in Virginia. Most people are just pleading guilty.

"Actually, very few cases in Virginia are resolved by trial by jury," said NBC12 legal analyst Steven Benjamin.

"Plea bargaining and guilty pleas really in practice, they are the criminal justice system," said University of Richmond professor and former prosecutor Corrina Lain.

Even the Supreme Court said so in a decision late last summer. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: "The reality is that plea bargains have become so central to the administration of the criminal justice system...."

"If every case went to trial, there's no way we'd be able to function," said Benjamin.

According to preliminary numbers from the State Supreme Court, there were nearly 186,000 criminal cases in Virginia last year.

Only one percent of the cases went to a jury. More than half (52%) of all these cases ended in a plea deal.

The constitution protects your right to a jury, so why don't more people ask for one? Well, jury trials are time consuming and can be costly for taxpayers. The Defense has another reason:

"Because if you are convicted of a jury, you stand to be punished much more harshly than by a judge," said Benjamin.

In Virginia, what you get from a jury is your sentence - it's the penalty set up by lawmakers.

"Juries are risky. You're really rolling the bones with a jury - when you ask for a jury on a 20-to-life crime and they find you guilty, you're going to get a minimum of 20 years," said Lain.

Benjamin argues our plea deal criminal culture is promoting misconceptions. "There's a very strong belief on the streets that's if it's your word against, say, a police officer's word, you don't have a chance. You may as well plead guilty and hope for the best," said Benjamin.

The vast majority in the criminal justice system are minority, male and poor, and the days are gone where guilty pleas just meant jail time and a fine. Even minor convictions can stick with you forever - affecting voting rights, your job opportunities, your ability to get a loan for a house, even your right to stay in the country.

"These days, most convictions have consequences that go far beyond incarceration and punishment," said Benjamin.

But Lain says, as a former prosecutor, the vast majority of people plead guilty because they are in fact just that.

"Everyone pleads guilty because there's evidence on the table and they think that they're going down. That's why you plead guilty, because you think you can do better there than you could at trial," said Lain.

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