INDIANAPOLIS — Trial by jury, a hallmark of the American court system, seems to be disappearing in Indiana — in practice, if not in principle.

In 2015, there were 1,160 jury trials across the state's 92 counties out of 1,361,787 new criminal, civil, infraction and ordinance violations filed in Indiana.

That's nine fewer jury trials in the state than in 2014, and a sharp decline from the 1,514 cases resolved by a jury in 2010, and the 2,450 jury trials in 2005, according to data published by the Indiana Office of Court Services.

Similarly, jury trials are increasingly rare in Northwest Indiana courthouses.

In 2015, Lake County had 90 jury trials: 37 criminal, 29 civil, 23 infractions (generally traffic tickets) and one ordinance violation.

That actually was up from 77 jury trials in 2014, but well below the 143 Lake jury trials in 2010, and the 211 in 2005.

Porter County recorded 27 jury trials in 2015, 30 in 2010 and 56 in 2005. LaPorte County saw 24 last year, 17 in 2010 and 30 in 2005.

Indiana is not alone in seeing fewer cases go to a jury. Many states report similar declines, and data show the number of jury trials in the federal court system dropped 52 percent between 1997 and 2015.

Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, who lived in Munster as a child, said there are several explanations for the 53 percent statewide decline in jury trials over the past decade.

For one, she said, there were some 320,000 more cases filed in 2005 than in 2015. She also said civil cases tend more often to be resolved through mediation these days than they were in the past.

"We will always protect the right to a jury trial," Rush said. "(But) if parties come to a resolution of the matter in a timely process, I think that's great."

In 2015, 17.4 percent of all Indiana cases were dismissed without trial. Another 15.7 percent were resolved through a guilty plea and an equal portion saw a fine paid through a motorist violations bureau.

Judges presided over 61,189 bench trials, or 4.4 percent of the total cases, and disposed of another 14.3 percent without trial.

Another reason for the relative paucity of jury trials is that traffic tickets and ordinance violations, which seldom go to a jury, comprised 43 percent of the court cases filed statewide in 2015.

There were just 63,582 felonies (5 percent of all cases) charged to Indiana's 6.6 million residents, including 232 murders.

Trial by jury still 'sacrosanct' in state

Rush said regardless of how rare jury trials are in the state, the constitutional right to a trial verdict from a jury always will be protected by the Indiana Supreme Court.

"We have cases in the criminal system that come up to our court, and we had a couple of opinions last year, where a defendant didn't adequately waive it (the right to a jury trial)," Rush said.

"So even though he may have (pleaded guilty), he didn't personally waive his right to a jury trial, and those cases got reversed on that basis."

She added, "We will continue to fiercely protect jury trials. ... The jury trial is sacrosanct."

Rush said it's too soon to tell the impact on jury trials from Indiana's 2014 criminal code reforms that generally reduced prison terms for all but the worst crimes, and favored community corrections, drug treatment or other diversion programs, over locking most criminals up for long stretches.

Some county prosecutors initially chafed at their apparent loss of plea-bargaining power, since the changes eliminated what once were lengthy prison terms for mid-level felonies.

However, the initial data show prosecutors do not seem to be taking more cases to juries seeking a maximum sentence.

Rush said the court system is working with the legislative branch to measure the effects of the criminal law changes and plan future actions based on those results.

"Part of what we're doing with our court technology ... is pulling that data so we can see if we can pinpoint the reasons why and then guide our policy from that," Rush said.

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