This fall, voters will be asked to approve or reject a new amendment to the North Carolina Constitution. This amendment will likely read:
“Constitutional amendment providing that a person accused of any criminal offense for which the state is not seeking a sentence of death in Superior Court may, in writing or on the record in court and with the consent of the trial judge, waive the person’s right to a trial by jury.”
Hear our take below
This constitutional amendment should be rejected. While at first it may seem like a defendant should be able to waive their rights, this amendment would create another mechanism by which prosecutors can coerce defendants into a difficult position.
According to Federal Justice Statistics, already less than 5 percent of defendants in criminal cases actually exercise their right to a speedy and public trial with an impartial jury. Plea bargains are used to attempt to push a defendants towards a guilty plea under the threat of a more harsh punishment should a trial find them guilty. Many innocent people likely find themselves in a situation where they must bear considerable expense to try to prove their innocence and risk a harsh punishment, or settle for a lesser punishment at a lower cost.
The differences are staggering. According to Human Rights Watch, the average sentence for federal drug offenders who pleaded guilty was five years, and four months, based on raw federal sentencing data for 2012; for those convicted after trial the average sentence was 16 years.
An interesting study published in 2013 titled "The Innocent Defendant's Dilemma" examined the effect of plea bargaining and found a remarkable number of "innocent" study participants were willing to admit guilt to something they did not do in order to receive a more lenient punishment. The results exceeded their estimates and led them to call for a reevaluation of the role and method of plea bargaining today. You can read a short review of this study here.
Although the wording of this Constitutional amendment sounds simple enough, we feel it would be more realistic if it read "allow the prosecution to coerce defendants into forfeiting their right to a jury trial". Surely, the answer then to that question would be clear.
This measure, Senate Bill 399, was passed through both the NC House and Senate with only one dissenting vote. In November, stand with the Durham and Orange County Libertarian Party to reject this amendment and project the right to a jury trial for all defendants.