Virginia Governor Ralph Northam recently signed into law a bill giving criminal defendants convicted at jury trials the choice between being sentenced by a judge or the jury that convicted them.

Arguments for and against jury sentencing

Proponents of the new reform say the choice to have a jury sentence a criminal defendant evens the playing field rather than giving prosecutors the advantage of being able to threaten a jury trial. They also say that the change will result in fairer plea agreements and shorter prison terms, therefore using less state resources in the long-term.

Jury trials are becoming less and less prevalent in the Virginia criminal justice system. In 2019, only 1.3% of criminal convictions resulted from jury trials, 90% guilty pleas, and 8.7% bench trials or trials by judge. Proponents argue that giving a defendant a choice between judge or jury sentencing could reintroduce the Sixth Amendment into the justice system.

Opponents of the bill, including the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, argue that the bill’s passage will lead to a spike in jury trials – costing Virginia more money and resources and will cause delay. They are concerned that the criminal justice system won’t have the resources to cover the increase in jury trials.

Sentencing by a judge

Almost all states require convicted defendants to be sentenced by judges at a separate hearing. The change in allowing defendants to choose between being sentenced by a judge or a jury allows Virginia defendants to be sentenced at a hearing immediately following conviction, rather than waiting for a separate hearing, which might occur months later. The law will go into effect July 1st, 2020. Working an attorney is an important step when facing criminal charges, and can help when making decisions about the best course of action before, during and after a trial.