What would happen if every single defendant insisted on going to trial rather than plead guilty?

The right to trial is guaranteed by the Constitution, however, over 90% of cases end in a guilty plea in order to get the defendant a lighter sentence and save the prosecution the time and expense of going to trial.

Now, suppose that somehow, all of one accord (almost as if mind control,) all defendants in the USA made a pact that they would always plead not guilty and take things to trial rather than make a plea deal. This would, presumably, hopelessly bog down the legal system - and the Constitutional also guarantees the right to a speedy trial.

Would the prosecution be forced to rush all trials on a helter-skelter schedule, thus not only weakening their case against the defendant but also allowing the defendant to possibly complain/appeal that the rushed schedule was preventing him from being able to put together an effective defense?

I honestly don’t think there’s a factual answer to this question. This would represent a serious crises as our legal system ground to a halt and such an event is unprecedented so far as I know.

Since your basic question is “what would people do if…”, answers can only amount to speculation. So here’s mine.

Presumably the prosecution wouldn’t be rushing trials so fast that defendants don’t have time to prepare; they would only need to have a trial date that’s early enough to meet the requirement for being constitutionally “speedy”. Any more rushing than that is pointless.

As things currently stand, plea deals are offered to save the expense of a trial. So maybe under your new scenario, plea deals would be sweetened to more strongly incentivize a guilty plea, conserving trial resources. If every defendant is still obstinately pleading guilty, then I expect you’d see the justice system being more selective about which defendants it bothers to charge. Caught with a pound of weed? You walk. Caught while committing double murder? You’re going to trial.

I’d guess that if enough troublesome individuals are released unpunished by the long arm of the law, taxpayers would insist on increasing funding for the justice system to assure that we could afford to take more evildoers to trial.

Under the OP’s scenario there are no successful plea deals, period.

Fair enough. Then the only remaining options are to increase justice system resources to provide “speedy” trials for all defendants, or have the justice system be more selective about which defendants it puts on trial.

Another option might be to make penalties and sentences more severe in the hope of providing a greater deterrent (not saying this would necessarily work, but I think it would be an option on the table)

In theory, penalties/sentences are determined so as to be appropriate/just for the crime that was committed. Offering reduced sentences from that point in exchange for accepting a plea deal is within the purview of the justice system, but increasing sentences beyond that point for the express purpose of deterring arrestees from choosing a trial amounts to punishing people for exercising their constitutional rights, and so would probably be shot down by SCOTUS.

It also goes against the OP’s scenario, which says that all arrestees always plead not guilty and go to trial.

I think it would work eventually, reducing the volume of repeat offenders by increasing the time period between offences.

In addition, don’t most people agree to plea deals because the case against them is pretty strong? It would also greatly increase the number of times that I would be called for jury duty, and frankly I would start to just assume the defendants are guilty, just to end jury duty. I would be correct most of the time.

Something like that in Canada. You are also guaranteed a trial in “reasonable” time. Our Supreme court in a case a while ago determined that should be 18 months for simple cases, and up to 30 months for more serious crimes (if I remember the numbers right). Since our provinces were cheap bastards and skimped on the court system, this decision resulted in a large number of pending cases being thrown out. Now, prosecutors have to consider the timeline. You still hear from time to time a case taking far too long to get to trial and being tossed for not being a “speedy trial”.

I like the system I am told the British use - the prosecution can only offer a 2/3 reduction in the sentence for a plea deal. This forces them to prosecute for a reasonable sentence - the theory being, if you are guilty and know you will lose, 66% of the sentence is better than 100%. If you think you are innocent and maybe you can win, you aren’t gambling like some American cases, 10 years vs. 1 year. (Or in the case of Aaron Schwarz, 35 years vs. 6 months - so he committed suicide.)

The OP forgot another threat - I have only been notified I was up for jury duty once. Similarly, my wife had the same notice. In both cases, the jury summons was cancelled before it got to trial. The defense threatens “if you take us to trial, we’ll ask for a jury trial” which is a lot more hassle and more unpredictable. Canada has a limit, IIRC the charges have to carry 5 years or more to have a jury. In the USA, everyone threatening to need a jury pool - creating a need for 20 times as many jurors as normal to handle all the cases - could really bog down the system.

Even as things are now, there are poor people in jail who can’t afford good legal representation who have been waiting in jail for their “speedy trial” for 3 years or more. It’s one of the many examples in our legal system of how you have to pay for “justice”. I believe your scenario would only worsen that situation.

I don’t see what that has to do with the supposed deterrent (from committing crime) value of the punishment.

In fact the whole of your post appears to be talking about deterring people from something other than committing crimes, which was the only thing I was talking about.

Sorry, I had the impression you were talking about increasing penalties beyond the amount previously determined to be just for the crime, with the goal of deterring perps from choosing a trial instead of a plea deal. So that’s what I was [mistakenly] addressing.

I suppose one way to rationalize increased punishment is to regard the cost of administering justice as part of the burden imposed on society by the criminal. If the burden of a crime is increased by the certainty of a trial instead of a plea deal, then there may be justification for imposing a greater deterrent on the commission of crimes.

Fair enough. I mean, your point about the appropriateness of sentences still applies. Would anyone be able to reasonably argue that we need tougher sentences, not because the nature or frequency of crime had changed, merely the behaviour of arrested suspects? I expect that wouldn’t fly.

I suspect it would cause judges and juries to severely restrict due process very quickly and the higher courts to quickly redefine what due process means. And what prison overcrowding means.

Misdemeanors would be processed like traffic court.

Unless you are a millionaire, good luck finding a defense lawyer.


This question is speculative enough that I don’t think there can be any nontrivial factual answer. Moving to IMHO.

We have had this discussion many times in the past and I am getting tired of correcting you.

Any time the police charge someone with an indictable offence, they have a right to a jury trial. Every time. It’s set out in the Criminal Code.

The defendant wouldn’t be able to complain about this, as defense adjournments wouldn’t count against speedy trial deadlines so the defense can have as much time as they need. Delays due to the unavailability of the judge don’t count in some jurisdictions either - so if the prosecutor asks for 7 days, and the judge isn’t available until until the 22nd day, the prosecution only gets charged with 7 days.

But wouldn’t they still be gambling if they think they can win - 100% of the sentence vs nothing if you win?

I don’t know how many times I’ve posted this in discussions with md-2000:

The exceptions “expressly provided by law” are provisions which allow the accused to choose a non-jury trial.