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Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 12:01 am

Trial by jury

Dragooning jurors to serve justice is unjust

 

The United States ended military conscription in 1973, but draft-dodgers still roam the land – ordinary citizens drafted involuntarily into service as trial jurors by the courts. Many objections can be made to the policy of hauling untrained laypeople off the street under threat of fines or prison to decide complex matters of fact and law, but I want to address one in particular. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor is paid for her time. The defendant’s attorney is paid. The judge, the stenographer, the bailiff, the janitors are paid. The juror, on whose judgment the state relies for the ultimate resolution of the case, is not paid.

Sangamon County (says its jury commission) expects jurors to weigh all of the evidence and testimony and be fair, impartial and free of any bias or prejudice. The county believes that service is worth 15 bucks a day – one-fourth of what the worst-paying jobs in the state pay for the same hours. This is not inadequate, it’s insulting. A juror who is a salaried professional, or a wage earner lucky enough to work for a boss who chooses to compensate fully for missed hours, suffers no out-of-pocket losses. But even if such people lose no money, they pay in hours making up for lost work time, hours that are taken from their families. Even when the injustice is visited upon someone other than the juror, it remains an injustice. As for the hourly wage worker and the self-employed, if someone with a gun stole money from them in a dark alley, they could have them arrested; if he steals it while they are in a courtroom, they can’t.

Civic duty? There is no more important civic duty than voting, yet no one is threatened with fines and jail time for failing to turn up at the polls. As for doing the public’s work without compensation, ask a police officer, a schoolteacher, a public health nurse or a state legislator what they think about that.

Advocates of the system sometimes argue that a judge or state’s attorney is a highly trained specialist in the law, while a juror needs only an open mind and a certain tolerance for tedium to do her job. I argue that you could build a courthouse out of the records of cases whose verdicts were at odds with the evidence or common sense because untrained jurors brought only open minds and a certain tolerance for tedium to the job.

Any person of limited means enters a jury box uneasy and anxious because he is losing money he cannot afford to lose. The evidence scarcely matters; once he gauges the inclinations of the other members he will vote for whichever verdict will get him out of that horrible little room the fastest. Least of all will he raise objections or even ask questions that might prolong the process.

 Solution? Every juror must be paid at least what she has lost, beginning with the selection process. I know – we can’t afford it. That is usually said by the people who are not in fact paying for it. Coercing citizens to act as props in the pantomime known as the American justice system lowers the budgets of the courts system, but it doesn’t lower the costs of the court system. Those get charged to other accounts, shifting them from where they belong – the taxpayers who want a reliable, fair justice system – to the hapless inidviduals and their employers caught up by the system. Those unlucky enough to be empaneled end up paying a surtax that is paid only by them that day.

Compensating jurors for actual lost income would settle the fairness question, but it does not touch the larger problem of quality. The courts need better jurors, and that means fewer of them. Reduce the size of juries or eliminate them altogether for certain kinds of trials. Reduce the range of conduct defined as criminal that brings people into the system in the first place by reforming the drug laws. Hire jurors under long-term contracts as court employees. Give them training in evidence and statistics and the legal tricks of the trade so they can act as justice advocates by being counterweights to judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Some will say that anyone who applies as a paid juror must be a loser, but that will happen only if the state pays loser wages. We have educated a whole generation of young people for jobs they will never find. Add them to bored retirees and a paid jury pool would overflow with quality. Having the work of court professionals overseen by such a body of citizens would do nothing but good for defendants. (Which might prompt many of those pros to oppose it.) These days we pay our solidiers to fight, and get better soldiers as a result. We should pay our jurors too, for the same reason.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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