Thursday, September 19, 2019

Justice and jury duty


Several weeks ago, the State of Hawaii selected me for jury duty. After three days spent waiting and observed, I, along with fifty plus other jurors, was dismissed. The jury had been empaneled without requiring our services.

The process evoked several musings.

First, the number of persons in the jury pool who expressed their displeasure with being called to serve disturbed me. Juries constitute a vital check on the power of prosecutors and the judiciary. Without juries of citizens – one’s peers – the criminal justice would become the exclusive domain of professionals. Invariably, systems relegated to professionals tend over time to abuse their power. They may opt for shortcuts to expedite outcomes, including infringing upon individual rights. This well-intentioned infringement is amply documented in the pressure on prosecutors and public defenders to plea bargain as frequently as possible to avoid the costs and time jury trials entail. In short, occasionally serving on a jury seems a small price to pay for preventing drift toward a police state.

Second, the process provided a lesson in how systems, even well-intentioned systems, devalue and abuse the powerless. Jurors must attend. The Judge initiated bench warrants for the approximately forty no-shows. Jurors are paid $30 per day while on duty. Jurors with salaried positions or regular, hourly positions still receive their regular income. Jurors who work irregular hours, paid by the hour, typically lose their income during jury duty. Self-employed jurors (gig workers, freelancers, small business owners) earn only the $30 per day while serving. In contrast, district judges in Hawaii earn slightly more than $200,000 per year. Lawyers bill by the hour; hourly rates in excess of $300 are common. Consequently, the criminal justice system places a premium on the time of judges and lawyers, resulting in potential jurors spending many hours waiting. If jurors earned minimum wage or more, the criminal justice system would place more value on jurors’ time; citizens might also be more willing to serve as jurors.

Third, the jury pool appeared diverse with respect to gender and race, but not to economic status. Appearances may be deceptive. However, only one or two in the jury pool of 140 plus persons appeared as if they earned $200,000 or more per year, in a state in which over 10% of the population earns that amount. High earners may have identified ways in which legitimately to avoid jury duty. If true, then the jury does not reflect Hawaii’s socio-economic composition. Similarly, the jury pool did not seem to include persons from Hawaii’s lowest socio-economic stratum. Since the jury pool seems drawn from registered voters, perhaps, these persons, like some high earners, may have failed to register to vote. Linking voter registration to issuing driving licenses and state ID cards will (1) increase voter registration, (2) assist in keeping voter registration lists current and (3) expand the number of people eligible for jury duty to resemble the state’s population more closely.

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