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.
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