Friday, December 12, 2014

Pay Jury Members Minimum Wage

I started thinking about this several years ago when I was called for jury duty. Since I was a state employee, and jury duty was seen as a positive thing for citizens to do, I was paid my regular wage and benefits from the state while I was gone, in a specific category called, not surprisingly, Jury Duty Pay. It wasn't charged to my vacation leave or holidays or anything else.

So it was no loss to me financially to do my civic duty and be on a jury. But what about people whose employers are not so generous? People who are working at a minimum wage job, without those benefits and perks that are enjoyed by union members, state employees, etc.

For them it is a financial burden for them to be impaneled on a jury. True, most states have a "hardship" clause that can excuse them from jury duty. But is that really contributory to a fair and impartial justice system? From my experience, the answer is a resounding "no".

My jury pool, after all of the excused jurors were dismissed, was top-heavy with middle-class retirees, way older than the local demographic would indicate. Wealthier and whiter as well. And about 60-40 female v. male.

A large number of the people charged with crimes severe enough to warrant a jury trial are exactly the opposite. Young, poor, male, persons of color.

 In Washington State jurors are paid a whopping $10 a day. Nationwide jury duty pay runs from a paltry $5 a day (New Jersey) to a generous payment of the minimum wage for jury hours (New Mexico). Most states pay between $10 and $40 per day. Still not much of an incentive.

If we paid our jurors something more than a joke, we might get a more representative cross-section of jurors to serve. When that happens, I think the accused would get a much fairer trial. People can't park their prejudices at the door when they walk into the courtroom, mostly because a large number of them don't even realize that they have those prejudices. When you have panel of jurors that skews to the aged, the wealthy, the white, it's almost impossible to get a reasonable judgment on "just the facts". You know the old saying, "A fish is the last one that's going to grasp the principles of water".

In my jury pool there were a number of people who were more or less blatant about wanting to shirk their duty. While no one actually came out and said, "Just look at him! He looks guilty!", a couple of them came very close to that. I didn't think I would get chosen myself, since at that time I worked in quasi-law-enforcement (I was an Unemployment Insurance fraud investigator), but I skated through anyway and found myself impaneled on an aggravated assault trial jury.

So what happened? After the first day of testimony and graphic evidence (gruesome photos taken of the victim in the hospital) by the prosecution, the defendant saw the handwriting on the wall and pleaded out the next morning. He took a reduced charge instead of putting his fate in the hands of 12 people who were not smart enough to get out of jury duty. He still had to do some prison time, but not nearly as much as he would have when if we found him guilty.

Too bad, since I was looking forward to a Twelve Angry Men scenario in the deliberation room.


Nan said...

Is anything showing up when I try to comment? All I see as I type is the cursor moving -- no actual type at all.

Farnsworth68 said...

Apparently it's coming through on this end.

Nan said...

Interesting. It is now working on this end also. Blogger definitely has its idiosyncracies.

Agree with you about jury pay. When I served on a jury in Georgia, I was a federal employee. Jury duty got classified as a type of administrative leave so I got full pay. Georgia is more generous than most states, but it still didn't come near to what a person would earn in 8 hours working at a minimum wage job. (It was an interesting trial. Lesson learned from it? If you're going to commit a double homicide, don't text a friend immediately afterward trying to set up an alibi.)

I've been called for jury duty locally this month but so far every trial on the schedule has been settled out of court. The last one on the list was a 4-day trial supposed to start Monday, December 15, but it's been cancelled so I'm off the hook for awhile.