Trial by Jury – A Flawed Model

Trial by jury is a popular concept in the justice system. I haven’t yet understood how it is better than having a trained professional weigh evidence and award the judgment. I see it as a system that is prone to fault, and worse, fault undetectably!

When stripped down to essentials, the Jury is a collection of ‘average’, ‘everyday’ people who decide on a court case based on the evidence presented to them. The basic idea being, if 9 (or whatever number of) common folk think you are guilty, then you probably are. And if they think you deserve to spend x number of years in jail for it, then you probably do.

The Jury is supposed to deliver Justice. But what is justice? According to Plato “Justice is the interest of the stronger”, but Criminal Justice, on the other hand, can be stated as “a system of legislation, practices, and organizations, used by the state to maintain social control, deter and control crime” (paraphrased from wikipedia). The jury, in the present context is expected to deliver Criminal Justice. Now the question is, does it?

Objectivity (or lack thereof)

Criminal Justice operates upon a set of Laws. If any individual or organization violates the law, a crime is said to have been committed. One of the duties of the Jury is to determine if the law has indeed been broken. This process involves interpreting the law (often done by the lawyers for the jury) and determining whether or not the law was indeed broken. Such interpretation should, ideally, be an objective exercise. This is necessary to ensure ‘fairness’.

Let me digress for a few sentences. How does one determine the validity of an argument in a scientific effort. Typically through peer-review among subject matter experts. Why? Because they know the subject best, and are the best judge in determining if an argument is valid or not.

In other words, a person who is an expert in a particular area is a good judge of arguments in that area. Why should law be any different? Why is it assumed that an argument about the law is somehow best judged by a group of laypeople?

The consequence of this is loss of objectivity, and fairness in the system. People are too easily swayed by emotions, they are prejudiced by their own views, opinions, and value system. It takes an expert (like a judge trained in law) to divorce all this from the case at hand and be able to weigh the evidence and arguments. Jury of laypeople are no where near as qualified or skilled.

Awarding a Sentence

Often, the jury is also asked to determine the sentence (in terms of prison time, or financial payments) in many cases. This is an exercise that the jury is hopelessly ill-equipped for.

The prison system is often referred to as a ‘correctional system’. This is so because functionally, a prison is meant to serve as a place where the criminal does ‘penance’ for his/her crime and at the end of the term comes out as a ‘reformed’ person. So when a person is being sent to prison for x number of years, it has been determined that it will take the correctional facility x number of years to reform the person into a productive member of the society.

So my question is:By what (justifiable) qualification does the jury possess the authority to determine the time necessary for a criminal to be ‘corrected’ or ‘reformed’? The jury is regular people like you and I. If someone were to ask me how long does it take for (say) a street thug to be reformed, my honest answer would be “I dont know”. Then how can a jury, who have no knowledge or training in this matter, possibly know the time it takes for such a reform? Then how can they determine the right magnitude of sentence?

Restorative Justice vs. Retributive Justice

Most criminal justice systems in the world are based on restorative justice. Restorative justice focuses on establishing social harmony and mutual responsibility. So when determining whether or not a crime has been committed, and if so, then what the magnitude of sentence should be, it is important that social harmony be established by the justice system in that process. There have been many cases where the social harmony has been a major motivation for certain decisions by courts, eg:Brown vs. Board of Education, Gay Student Services vs. Texas A&M University, etc.

Such exercises in restorative justice, however, requires a excellent and thorough understanding of factors at the regional as well as global level. Even with local cases, because any case can become a precedent for future cases. The individual engaging in restorative justice must be aware of the implications that his/her decision will have on the landscape of law and justice in general.

Often, jury based justice system is only as smart as the jury (who are often average-joe-kind-of people), and hence not in any way enabled to engage in restorative justice. In the absence of specialized training, jury has no choice but to resort to a more primitive form of justice: retributive justice. Which essentially says that the punishment must fit the crime. An easy, but flawed yardstick to go by. Such retributive justice can result in denial of justice, and worse, become a precedent for future cases to follow, thus propagating this denial to future parties.

All of the above deficiencies can be remedied by moving away from a jury based trial to a trial by judge (under the assumption that the judge is a trained subject matter expert in law). Based on the above arguments, it hard not a conclude that the jury system is a model that is designed to fault undetectably. The undetectability of its faulting provides a false sense of confidence in the system. It is best done away with.

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