Sunday, February 24, 2013

California budget woes may shrink juries

California judges say the state's financial woes and a $1.2 billion dollar cut in court funding over the last four years are forcing the courts to push for smaller juries. California is considering reducing the number of juries in some cases from 12 to eight.

The change would not be as radical as it sounds. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of rulings since 1970, has upheld convictions by juries with as few as six members. The Justice Department says 39 states authorize juries with fewer than 12 members, mostly for misdemeanor cases, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

California requires 12-member juries for felonies but allows smaller juries in misdemeanors and civil suits if both sides agree.

The change would require a state constitutional amendment to shrink juries from 12 to eight members for misdemeanors, crimes punishable by up to a year in jail.

The judge's association is also proposing legislation that would cut the number of prosecutors' and defense attorneys' challenges to prospective jurors, likewise in the interest of saving time and thus money.

According to the Chronicle, passage of a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses and approval by a majority of state voters, would be difficult, but some suggest "it's an important subject at a time that the judicial system is in crisis."

A committee of presiding Superior Court judges wants to go further and eliminate jury trials altogether for misdemeanors punishable by less than six months in jail. Those cases would be heard by a judge. Juries would be reduced to eight members for other misdemeanors and civil suits.

"What you're giving up is the constitutional guarantee that you're going to be tried by a jury of your peers," San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi told the Chronicle. "There are not as many individuals scrutinizing the evidence, and there are fewer minorities."

Studies in other states, where smaller juries are common, have found that they increase the chance of an erroneous conviction, Adachi said. A 2004 study by the National Center for State Courts concluded that smaller juries would save money but "likely be less representative of the community."

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