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A Jury of 18 Percent of Your Peers

In theory, the juries that sit in judgment of those who are accused of wrongdoing are representative of the community at large. Not in Washington.

Leaving aside the myriad tricks lawyers use to alter the color, gender and occupational composition of juries, the plain, depressing fact is that only 18 percent of Washingtonians summoned for jury duty ever show up. The situation got so bad that the courts finally decided to see if they could do something about this.

The D.C. courts streamlined the lists from which they cull names of potential jurors, and that has helped a bit to narrow the gap between those summoned and those who serve, but the ugly fact remains that the response rate is sad. As the latest study by the Council for Court Excellence puts it, the low return on jury summonses "reduces the demographic representation of juries, results in an inequitable distribution of both the educational value and the burden of service across the population, and imposes costs on the employers of those that do serve."

Other cities facing a similar problem took action and got results. In New York, the yield of jurors doubled when the courts began an aggressive effort to follow up with folks who ignored the jury summons. L.A. pushed its response rate up from 15 percent to 25 percent with similar efforts. The District is starting to call some jury duty scofflaws to acccount, even hauling some folks before the chief judge to reschedule their duty or face the consequences.

But the new report calls for more aggressive efforts, including improving the list of names the system uses by adding new naturalized citizens and scrubbing the list of people who have long since moved out of town. And the report says the District should stop letting those who fail to respond go right to the back of the two-year queue before they are called to serve again. Those folks should instead be sent an immediate second summons. Finally, the report asks the D.C. courts to consider letting convicted felons back into the jury pool 10 years after they have completed their term in prison or on probation. This, I have to say, is one of the dumbest ideas I've come across to date. The last people you want serving as jurors are those who do not believe it is important to follow the law.

The study looked at response rates by zip code to try to figure out if one or another ethnic or racial group is more or less likely to serve on juries. Anecdotally, every group thinks they're being excluded from juries more than every other group. In fact, the numbers are pretty balanced. In zip codes with a predominantly black population and in zip codes with a mostly white population, the percentage of those summoned to jury duty is within a point or two of the percentage who actually end up serving.

All those anecdotes we hear stem more from the lawyers' picking and choosing among jurors than from the composition of the pool itself. Which goes to show you, it's always safest just to blame the lawyers.

By Marc Fisher |  May 10, 2006; 7:40 AM ET
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You state that "the percentage of those summoned to jury duty is within a point or two of the percentage who actually end up serving." Is the percentage of those responding to the summons also the same? Because if one demographic is more likely to show up, but is still only getting to serve the same percentage of the time, then it follows that out of the responding jury pool (not the summoned pool), one demographic is being excluded more than another.

Posted by: Al | May 10, 2006 9:31 AM

"Finally, the report asks the D.C. courts to consider letting convicted felons back into the jury pool 10 years after they have completed their term in prison or on probation. . . . The last people you want serving as jurors are those who do not believe it is important to follow the law."

Rather, those who were arrested, convicted, and served time. There have to be people who have served on a jury who have broken the law, or have no respect for the law, or no respect for the judicial system, or who just plain don't understand how a trial works.

If you want more people to serve on a jury, then you shouldn't be taking any of your options off the table. The whole system is a sham to begin with, but I suppose it's better than the alternative of bench trials.

Posted by: OD | May 10, 2006 10:27 AM

I think letting felons serve on juries ten years after they've served their sentence isn't all that bad of an idea (assuming there haven't been any legal issues since). That means people who broke the law 15, 20, 25+ years ago would be allowed to act as full members of society again. I would think most felons that have kept their noses clean for that long have learned the importance of law and order the hard way.

Posted by: J | May 10, 2006 10:45 AM

I'm also not against letting convicted felons serve after a period of time. They did their time; they should be allowed the opportunity to act as law-abiding citizens do.

It would be nice if DC would purge the rolls of deceased citizens. My grandmother keeps getting summons for jury duty -- and she's been dead for 3 years. And yes, we've called, sent letters, e-mailed about this -- to no avail.

Posted by: criss | May 10, 2006 11:02 AM


May 9, 2006 -- First they came for the Muslims and the Arabs . . . then they came for the illegal Latinos . . . and then they came for the Irish. Yes, the Department of Homeland Security under Obergruppenfuhrer/chief Kapo Michael Chertoff has decided to sic his Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after illegal Irish bartenders and waitresses who mostly work in New York City Irish pubs and who have overstayed their visas. Also being rounded up in the DHS sting are U.S. citizens of Irish descent who have facilitated the entry of the Irish workers from Canada through such entry points as Buffalo and Rochester. Since he became Homeland Security Czar, Chertoff has menaced Arabs and Muslims, Latin Americans, African-American survivors of hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and now Irish pub workers. Chertoff's actions against Irish bartenders and pub keepers has increased anti-American feelings in Ireland and among New York's large and influential Irish-American community.

"Kapo Chertoff's" new enemies: Irish bartenders in New York City. Chertoff is out to catch Osama McLaden.

One group Chertoff will definitely not touch is the non-documented organized crime syndicates from Russia, Ukraine, and Israel, some with provable financial links to "Al Qaeda," which operate mainly out of Brighton Beach in New York, Miami, and the greater Los Angeles area. Chertoff's financial and religious ties to these groups may explain his reticence in seeking their deportation.

Posted by: che | May 10, 2006 11:05 AM

I thought you could get into trouble for ignoring a summons. Why not enforce it?

Posted by: Daedalus | May 10, 2006 11:06 AM

If they would improve the compensation for jurors, so that people aren't effectively fined for doing their civic duty ($20/day, or whatever the going rate is, amounts to a punishment when compared to the loss of income many potential jurors face for missing work), they might get a higher response rate. Jury duty is fascinating, a wonderful civic lesson. Too bad we have to pay through the nose for it.

Posted by: NYC | May 10, 2006 11:13 AM

Marc, I lived in the District from 1967 to 1990 and only got called once. I served my two weeks, serving on two trials in the process, and never got called back. I was a college-educated Black man who voted in every single election. Meanwhile my co-worker, who assiduously avoided voting his whole life, and had never attended college, got called up for jury duty religiously every two years. I enjoyed my service and was anxious to serve again but was never called again. I moved to Silver Spring in Montgomery County for 10 years and was never called once. I moved to Laurel in Prince Georges County and was called once, but when I called the night before to see if my Juror # made the final cut of people who had to report for jury duty, I missed the cut. I've lived in Burtonsville in Montgomery county for 6 years, and when I was finally called for jury duty, my juror # once again was not one of those called to serve when I called the night before. I am frustrated in the extreme at not being able to serve jury duty and now that I am a Black man with a Ph.D. in his fifties, I wonder if I am being excluded for educational reasons, racial reasons, age reasons, because I am a citizen who continues to vote in every election, or is the system flawed in the way they do not have a way for potential jurors who want to serve to opt in to a pool of ready and willing jurors--I'm sure I am not alone. Thanks for letting me vent.

Posted by: Jeff Fearing | May 10, 2006 12:23 PM

If felons have served their time, and not gotten into legal troubles in the intervening 10 years, there is no reason not to include them in the pool of potential jurors. If you're assuming they'd be less likely to convict, I suggest you take off your blinders and get back into the real working world. The folks I've known who have served time are probably more likely to find someone guilty than not.

Posted by: Moose | May 10, 2006 12:46 PM

I would love to serve on a jury. It facinates me. I never get called. My husband has been called twice this year, once for Fairfax circuit court, and once for (I think) federal district court. I wish we could trade

Posted by: Ruby | May 10, 2006 12:52 PM

I've lived in Chicago, Tucson, Boston, Pittsburgh, and now Alexandria, and I've never been called in any of those places. Except for Boston, where I lived for only two years, I've always been registered to vote. And I'd be glad to serve too.

I agree, too, that there should be some time limit after which people who've been convicted of felonies should be allowed to serve. Given the very high rate of recidivism, a person who's avoided rearrest is reasonably likely to think that crime shouldn't pay.

Posted by: THS | May 10, 2006 1:29 PM

I also believe that felons should be allowed to sit on juries after they have completed their sentences. Racism is a major factor here: African-Americans are more likely to be victims of the causes of crime (poverty, gangs, etc.) that pull people before the courts, and they are also more likely to suffer conviction and harsher sentences on the same crimes relative to white defendants. People who have experienced the justice system first-hand are uniquely qualified to comment on its shortcomings.

Also, I think we should oppose the paradigm of once-a-criminal-always-a-criminal. The purpose of a criminal sentence is to allow people to pay their debt to society; we should accept people as contributing citizens once they have completed their sentences. When we lay institutional expectations on people that they will be less-than-law-abiding, they will tend to live up to our expectations, and surely that would not be in society's interest.

Posted by: lart from above | May 10, 2006 2:11 PM

It's fairly sad that lawyer challenges have basically reduced juries to "dumb people who never watch TV, read the paper, talk to other people or have opinions of any kind"

Posted by: tallbear | May 10, 2006 3:31 PM

I don't have any problem with the basic idea of allowing convicted felons to resume civic functions such as jury duty after a 10-year or longer period. But there's a big practical problem:

What prosecutor is ever going to accept onto a jury someone who has previously been tried and convicted? You'd have to assume that person would sympathize with the defendant.

So the practical effect would be to summon ex-felons to jury duty, knowing that they would all be rejected from actual jury selection.

Posted by: Nick | May 10, 2006 4:16 PM

I just got a questionaire and I filled it out and returned it. As a previous poster said, I thought you got in trouble if you didn't.

I think felons have served their time but can they vote? So no-vote/no-service.

Are the response rates that low in Montgomery as well?

Posted by: RoseG | May 10, 2006 4:46 PM

NYC has a good point. Even if they want to, most people simply can't afford to serve on a jury for any significant length of time, when they're being paid $30 a day. The law requires employers to allow their employees to serve on a jury, but doesn't require that they continue to pay their regular salary. My union contract stipulates that, so I was able to serve on a jury for 5 weeks with no loss of pay. But others who were called chose to find an excuse rather than take a severe pay cut. This fact alone severely skews the makeup of juries. On mine, the vast majority were retired. While racially and geographically representative of DC, at an average age of 65, nearly all were predisposed to lock them up and throw away the key.

The problem in DC is especially acute because there are so many more courts (DC and federal) and such a small population from which to cull jurors. DC's novel solution, at least for grand jurors, seems worse than the problem: they take volunteers. If you want to be a juror, just go down to 500 Indiana Ave. and sign up. This presents a catch-22, however. Because anyone who really wants to be on a jury probably does so for the wrong reasons, and shouldn't be on a jury at all.

Posted by: I, the Jury | May 10, 2006 6:25 PM

This is one of the prime reasons I moved out of the District! Not taxes. Not the parking gestapo. Not the snow removal. Not the city administration. Jury Duty!

I lived near DuPont Circle for 17 years. I was called to jury duty 11 (ELEVEN!) times. Had the misfortune to get called by the Superior Court one year, and the federal court the following. When I complained that I had already served only a year before, the federal clerk said they don't recognize service in the Superior Court as part of the 2-year exclusion from call-up!

Isn't that special! I wound up getting called every damn year.

I served on 4 juries, and was jury foreman once. After the last call-up I was determined to move before they called me again. The month before my house went on the market - I got another summons.

As for "...letting convicted felons back ... 10 years after ... prison or on probation.... one of the dumbest ideas I've come across to date."

Get real. In the selection process for the first jury I served on (a black kid caught with a teensie bit of crack, and I mean, so TEENSIE! there nerver should have been a trial, the judge asked if there was any in the jury pool that had ever been convicted of a crime, to put their hands up. A sea of hands went up around me.

One of those hands wound up on the the jury I served on and admitted - during deliberations - that he had been convicted of the same crime, didn't trust the cops, not changing my mind - hung jury. A mini O.J.

After the trial was over I asked the prosecutor why a trial for such a piddling amount. Her answer: It is the policy (of the Ed Meese Justice Dept.) to prosecute all drug cases regardless of amount. So, I lost two weeks of my life not because of justice, but because of "policy". They were going to retry this kid. The felons in the Reagan administration got off easier than these kids, for much worse crimes.

Last note: any young males should be very wary of middle-age, middle-class black women on a jury. Tough as nails! Tough, proud, and no nonsense. In the trial on which I was the foreman, they all remembered that the defendant used the money his girlfriend gave him for the utility bill to buy his crack. From that second on they hated this guy. They were something else, and I have never forgotten them.

Posted by: A J M | May 11, 2006 10:32 AM

Enforce the existing law. This would increase the response even from those who have economic issues.

To "I the Juror": Grand Juries sit longer than trial juries and exist to follow (except in 1% or less of the time) the prosecutor instructions to indict. Thus, motives play no part. However, I infer that you wish not to extend the practice to trial juries. Therefore, I ask what, in your opinion are the "right" and "wrong" reasons to volunteer? Keep in mind that voir dire (sp?) seeks to detemine, among other things, the motives of the prospective juror.

Posted by: ADH | May 11, 2006 10:44 AM

In DC, as long as you are not currently serving time for a felony sentence you can vote. You can vote while you are serving midemeaner time. You can vote once you get to a halfway house, when you are on parole,if you are pretrial and once you are out. DC has the highest disparity in black/white incarceration in the country. Excluding ex-offenders from the jury pool essentially only excludes black men.

Posted by: Deb | May 11, 2006 1:46 PM

The purpose of a grand jury, ADM, is not to follow the instructions of the prosecutor, but to be an independent investigative body that serves as a check on the prosection.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, however, you are correct - because the grand jury process is entirely one-sided - because there is no defense, witnesses are not allowed to have an attorney present, prosecutors serve as both the government's agent and the jurors' legal counsel, the bar for probable cause is extremely low, etc. - grand juries will vote to indict 90% of the time.

However. Unless DC and the feds wish to ditch this archaic holdover from English common law entirely, there should be at least some effort to ensure the objectivity of potential jurors. One of the retired, repeat volunteer jurors on my jury, when asked why he kept coming back (though sleeping or complaining throughout the proceedings), responded: "I want to put criminals away!" The flipside, I suppose, would be an anarchist who signs up for jury duty with the deliberate intention of hanging the jury.

The solution, as I see it, is to make jury duty truly compulsory and affordable. Don't accept lame excuses for backing out. Pay jurors more, or require by law that employers continue to pay them their full salary. And for trial selection, have a higher bar for disqualifying jurors - recognizing that most people are biased, not just convicted criminals. I don't see the problem with having ex-felons on jury. Another of my fellow jurors admitted to being a former crack dealer who was never caught - and he voted to indict on every drug case.

Posted by: I, the Jury | May 11, 2006 2:24 PM

To I the Jury: Your learned discussion of the Grand Jury (entirely correct, of course and your comment on its usefulness today lead me to suspect you are or were in the legal profession (as am I). My implied point about volunteers is that those would not change the "no bill" rate of 10%(your estimate) or 1% (mine). I agree jury duty should be compulsory with standarized call up proceedure (to avoid AJM's 17 years in DC called 11 times or ADH's 12 years in DC called not once-Petit Jury--Only once Fedeal Grand Jury two weeks after moving to Va) and a defined term of sevice and time elasped before next call. Disagree about paid juror service. I am a hard case when it comes to Public Obligations. Since I took the check (whatever it was) for my one time in Montgomery County, I say keep the fee at current nominal rate.

Posted by: ADH | May 12, 2006 11:04 AM

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