What’s the purpose of juries?

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court expounded on the reasons for the constitutional right to trial by jury in criminal cases. (Duncan v. State of La., 391 U.S. 145 (1968).) Describing trial by jury as “fundamental to the American scheme of justice,” the Court wrote that the system’s overriding purpose is to keep the government in check.

Among the recognized purposes for the jury-trial right are:

  • protecting against unwarranted prosecution when judges either can or will not rule impartially
  • guarding against other kinds of unfair or arbitrary behavior by judges
  • giving the defendant the option of choosing fact finders who could be more sympathetic than judges, and
  • involving the community in the justice system.

The right to trial by jury remains vital in today’s society. Although not entitled to jury trials in every kind of case, defendants are usually free to let community members, rather than judicial officials, decide their fate. (For more, see The Right to Trial by Jury.)

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