My personal introduction to the jury selection process started early on a sultry August day in South Florida as I joined a group of roughly 150 people who had been similarly yanked away from their otherwise happy, productive lives to spend a day downtown as a cog in our aging system of criminal justice.
In a way I was fortunate not to get called for a case as it gave me an opportunity to analyze my fellow conscripts and talk to them about our common experience. The conclusion I reached was that the legal institution of jury duty, while important to our system of justice, is in desperate need of modernization. Along with that came the ironic knowledge that we were the lucky ones. The facilities in Palm Beach County are modern and clean, plus they provided wifi, phones, places to work and even supplied entertainment in the assembly area. In many places the waiting is not nearly so comfortable. I also have to give credit to the staff who did their jobs with friendly professionalism.
Not Feeling a Sense of Duty
In conversations with others during the day the one universal point of agreement was that we all resented being there. The inevitable rah-rah feel good videos about the importance of jury duty and role of the courts did absolutely nothing to alleviate the feeling that 150 wrongs don’t make a right. It was also apparent from conversations that employers are not very civic-minded these days as few of the people I spoke with were getting paid for their appearance. A nurse at a local hospital told me her managers changed her schedule so jury duty fell on her day off.
Another aspect of jury duty that has not kept pace with modern life is the compensation for appearance. For those of us who are self-employed, the day was a total loss. A gentleman who owned a lawn service was able to account in painful detail exactly how much this day was costing him. For a charming 18 year old young lady working a minimum wage job her “duty” cost her one-fifth of her entire weekly pay. The toll on income and productivity was truly eye-opening for me. My thought was instead of the $15 dollars a day jurors here currently get, an amount that wouldn’t even cover a decent lunch, that jurors should be paid $15 an hour. It would also put economic pressure on the courts into being more thrifty with the number of people called and fairly compensate people for their time.
Random Does Not Equal Representative
According to Kathy Burstein at the County Clerk’s Public Affairs Office, the list of potential jurors comes from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles on a quarterly basis and includes everyone in the county with a driver’s license or state issued ID. Comparing the demographics of the group I saw to the Census Bureau statistics for Palm Beach County pointed up the difference between a random and a representative sample. According to the census stats, of every 10 people called for jury duty in Palm Beach County two should be African-American, two should be Hispanic and six should be Caucasian. Yet the group in the jury assembly room was glaringly and overwhelmingly white. Random choice also doesn’t explain the surprising number of people who had been called to jury duty 2, 3, 4, and even 6 times in the case of a family law attorney (talk about poetic justice). According to a statement from Clerk Sharon Bock, 163,197 jurors were called by Palm Beach County in 2013. In a county of 1.4 million people, even with the total number reduced to account for those not qualified to serve, a repeat hit rate on a random sample simply couldn’t be that high. I believe the clerk’s office when they say that selection process is random to the best of their ability but, for whatever the reason, the results don’t seem to add up. The county does not track demographic data, so there’s no way to back-check juror pools for representation.
Out of the roughly 150 people who showed up for jury duty that steamy Wednesday the vast majority were sent home without hearing a case. Between 20 and 30 of us were downtown for six and a half hours without being called for anything. There’s a huge and glaring discrepancy between the number of people called and the casual dismissal of dozens of those supposedly qualified people from actually hearing cases. You can’t get out of coming to jury duty but defense attorneys and prosecutors winnow out people on the flimsiest of justifications. A citizen that’s good enough to be called should be good enough to hear the case, which means stricter limits on juror dismissals. Give each side one disqualification and after that they’re stuck with what they get, with the possible exception of capital cases. If the selection process truly is random and representative then the distribution will impact both prosecution and defense equally.
Who Are My Peers?
The biggest question that arose in my mind was figuring out just who would compose a jury of my peers in the modern world? When the Constitution was drafted cities and villages were largely homogenous while today people tend to self-segregate along socioeconomic lines. If you live in Los Angeles County in California it’s not reality to suggest to people in East L.A. that their impartial peers live in Beverly Hills. Yet that’s a scenario that plays out in virtually every urban area in the country. The inner city poor are being judged by wealthy suburbanites who are so different in orientation and background that they could be from different planets.
Besides reforming jury duty we also need to put some hard thought into how many people we’re putting in jail. At the end of 2011 the United States was imprisoning over two and a half million people, a number that is, quite frankly, insane. It’s time to modernize our criminal justice system and, while we’re at it, seriously think about giving our fellow man a break.