Should Defendants be Sentenced by Judges or Juries?

Aug 12, 2020

Lawmakers are headed to Richmond to consider a long list of proposed criminal justice reforms.

One of those proposals would change how defendants are sentenced.

Virginia has an old tradition of clinging to old traditions, especially when it comes to the law. And now Democrats in the General Assembly are trying to figure out how to ditch a bit of English common-law — having juries sentence defendants instead of judges.

“If you get a runaway jury, a case that may be worth two or three years, a conservative jury could give you 20 or 30 years," says Senator Joe Morrissey, a Democrat who represents Richmond.  "That’s not hyperbole, that happens, and judges almost never change the verdict of a jury.”

Earlier this year, Morrissey passed a bill out of the Senate that would allow for judges to sentence defendants instead of juries.

But the effort hit a roadblock in the House when it got to the Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee, where Delegate Mike Mullin is chairman.  “That is an excellent idea. But it will mean significantly more jury trials, which cost more money and take up more time," Mullin predicted. "So we’ll need more indigent defense counsel. We’ll need more public defenders. We’ll need more prosecutors. We’ll need more judges, and in some cases we’ll need more space.”

How much will all that cost? The Crime Commission is still trying to figure that out. Morrissey says lawmakers should act now instead of waiting. Mullin says lawmakers should wait for the Crime Commission to issue a report and then take action next year.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.