Overall, very few cases -- criminal or civil -- go to trial. Generally, both sides want to avoid the time, expense, and risk of a full-blown trial and resolve their differences through some mutual agreement. In the criminal context, this is usually a plea bargain, whereby prosecutors offer lesser charges and penalties in exchange for a guilty or no-contest plea.
But when it comes to federal criminal charges, new data from Pew Research reveals some shocking stats: Just two percent of people charged in federal court take their case to trial, and of those who do, only 17 percent are acquitted. Overall, only 320 of 79,704 total federal defendants went to trial and won their cases last year -- less than one percent.
The data comes from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and includes defendants charged in U.S. district courts with felonies and serious misdemeanors, as well as some charged with petty offenses. Overall, the number of federal criminal cases resolved at trial has been plummeting (from seven percent in 1998 to just two percent last year), but the rate is not consistent across all types of cases:
Fewer than 1% of federal defendants charged with immigration offenses (89 of 25,575) went to trial in fiscal 2018. The same was true of 2% of those charged with drug offenses (499 of 21,771) and 4% of those charged with property offenses (419 of 10,045). The trial rate was slightly higher for those charged with violent offenses (7%, or 192 of 2,879).
As for the outcomes of those few trials? Well, contrary to popular belief, defendants fared better in front of judges than juries of their peers. Criminal defendants can waive their right to a jury trial, and those that did were acquitted by a judge 38 percent of the time, compared to a 14 percent acquittal rate from juries.
Far more people are charged with violations of state criminal laws, but are they any more likely to go to trial? Of the 2017 data available the National Center for State Courts, only Michigan (2.12 percent), New York (2.91 percent), and Washington (2.31 percent) had jury trial rates higher than the federal system last year. So, criminal cases are even less likely to go to trial in state courts than they are at the federal level.
Every criminal case is unique, and only an experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to tell whether going to trial is a good idea. If you've been charged with a crime, contact one immediately.