Virginia to see new option for jury sentencing beginning July 1

Rockingham County Circuit Court.
Rockingham County Circuit Court.(WHSV)
Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 6:37 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Beginning Thursday, changes will come to jury trials in the Commonwealth, giving defendants another option when it comes to who determines the amount of time they serve if found guilty.

Historically in Virginia jurors on a jury trial would determine a defendant’s punishment if convicted of a crime. Under the new law, defendants will now be able to choose if they would like their penalties to come from a judge or jury.

Gene Hart, a defense attorney with A.Gene Hart, JR. PC, says this will benefit clients to not take plea deals and have more say in their own future.

“While jury members are historically very good and we want them for deciding who’s telling the truth, what are the factual realities in a case. Jury’s really aren’t set up well to determine sentences,” Hart said. “They don’t know anything about sentencing guidelines which are recommended ranges of punishments that the courts can see.”

Hart went on to say a jury is not told anything about probation or alternative programs to incarceration, meaning a judge could provide a better or lighter sentence.

“So a jury just could sentence to a term of years or at certain fine levels within the statutory range which oftentimes bare no relevance to the sentencing guideline recommendations,” Hart said.

Hart says he believes because of the change more cases will be tried specifically for drug distribution charges.

“In Virginia drug distribution of scheduled one or two substances, they carry a range of punishment from five to 40 years statutorily,” Hart said. “If you have a case that you don’t think is a drug distribution case but its more of a possession case, then those defendants would often not go to trial because if the jury did find it a distribution, then the minimum the judge could give them would be five years.”

Hart adds the sentencing guideline for a judge on that charge with someone, who has little to no record and took a plea deal, would be from nine months to 15 months to serve.

In this situation, most defendants would avoid taking the risk by accepting an outcome that would provide certainty.

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