INDIANAPOLIS | It is a hallmark of nearly every television courtroom drama, but the nervous defendant anxiously awaiting a jury's verdict is rarely seen inside Indiana's legal system.
Out of 1.6 million new Indiana court cases, just 1,338 were decided by a jury during the 2012 court year, which ran from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012. That's up from 1,298 in 2011, but 180 fewer jury verdicts than 2010, according to state court data released Monday.
Lake County had 122 cases decided by a jury last year. That's 9 percent of the state total and close to the county's 7.6 percent share of the state's population. Lake juries decided 111 cases in 2011 and 143 in 2010.
In Porter County, 35 jury verdicts were issued last year, down from 40 in 2011 but up from 30 in 2010. LaPorte County had 16 jury decisions in 2012, Newton five and Jasper three.
Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson, a Hobart native, attributes the rarity of jury verdicts to the increased use of plea bargains and diversions in criminal cases and mediation to resolve civil lawsuits, without all of which "the system could not exist," he said.
However, the state's top jurist is concerned about the relative scarcity of jury trials, which he called "the lifeblood of the American judicial system."
"We don't want to see jury trials disappear," Dickson said. "Jury trials are where the skills of lawyers are honed, developed and carried on. Public confidence in the jury trial system is crucial."
The chief justice rejected a suggestion that, especially in criminal cases, the tendency away from jury trials puts too much power in the hands of prosecutors to force defendants into plea deals.
"I don't know that it's a bad thing that they have that power. I think that's an appropriate power that our system puts in the hands of prosecutors," Dickson said. "But, of course, it has to be exercised judiciously, and we hope and encourage that to be done."
Just 19 percent of cases filed in county courts last year were criminal. Infractions, typically traffic violations, made up 36 percent of cases, followed by civil (18 percent), small claims (15), juvenile (six), ordinance violations (four) and probate/adoptions (two).
Infractions made up the majority (56 percent) of cases in city and town courts.
Northwest Indiana judges continue to be overworked, according to the state's weighted caseload measurements. On average, each Lake County judge did the work of 1.17 judges, while each Porter County judge worked the equivalent of 1.35 judges.
Statewide, each judge did the work of 1.26 judges last year, down from 1.27 in 2011.