Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Modest Proposal for Jury Duty

It seems that demand for jurors in Boston is hitting an all time high, while supply, come October, hits an all time low when there's a possibility that "Suffolk County, facing a years-long surge in violent crime and a spike in trials, will run out of prospective jurors by October" (which is apparently not unprecedented: the county ran out of jurors during Christmas week of 2006). This is according to an article by Michael Levenson and Jonathan Saltzman that appeared in The Globe the other day.

We're low on jurors for a number of reasons. First, the trial business is booming, with demand for jurors skyrocketing from 45,000 a year in 2002 to 62,000 in 2005. And this may understate the current demand, since a whole bunch of grand juries have been added to the mix. Then we have a lot of students, who apparently aren't so good at showing up and/or are pretty good at being excused. We also have a lot of immigrants, non-U.S. citizens, non-English speakers. Apparently, a lot of big cities face similar problems.

Boston's are exacerbated by the "three calendar year" rule, which states that you can't be summoned for jury duty in the three calendar years following the year in which you received your summons. I'm not entirely clear on this, but I think that it translates into: if I got a summons for jury duty in January 2007, I would have to show up for jury duty in April 2007. I would then be off the hook for the next three calendar years. Thus, I could not be re-summoned until January 2011. However it works, we give more time off for good juror behavior than most states, which summon prospective jurors every year or every other year.

From the article, I can't figure out the actual arithmetic of how many jurors are summoned, how many show up, and how many are blown through before a jury is impaneled, but it sounds like only one out of three even bother to show up - despite the threat of a $2K fine.

I think that at my trial earlier this year they went through nearly 200 jurors before settling on the 12 jurors, plus two alternates who sat on the jury I served on. And apparently it's even worse for grand juries, when it is claimed that it takes 800 prospective jurors to find 23 to sit on the grand jury. No wonder there: a sentence to sit on a grand jury is hard time in terms of the length of service.

One thing that Massachusetts is doing to rectify the problem is getting rid of the "calendar year" language loophole, which will goose the pool by quite a few additional jurors.

But I was thinking of things that the courts could do - applying business principles - that would make it easier to find jurors.

Now I'm not a big one believing that applying business principles to every problem does the trick. I don't believe that every government function can be improved by being privatized. I recognize that there is a BIG difference between citizen and employee, and that - much as they'd like to sometimes - governments can't just lay-off citizens. I have also seen little or no evidence that those with a business background make good office holders. (Au contraire, I might even venture, if I were politically inclined.)

So, here are a few ideas that make the whole thing work better.

  • Reduce the number of jurors required for a trial. Unless there is some statistical evidence that 12 people make a better collective decision than 10, or 8, or 6,* why not go with a lower number? Massachusetts uses a 6 person jury for misdemeanor trials. Would a number lower than 12 work for felonies? And where did the notion that 12 is the magic number come from? It certainly predates the movie Twelve Angry Men, and - so help me God - if I found out that it was based on the 12 apostles I'd be one angry woman.
  • Pay jurors more than $50 a day. Isn't increasing the wage rate what you do when there's a labor shortage? Sure, many people get reimbursed by their employers, but I'm guessing that a large proportion of those who shirk jury duty are self-employed, or have some type of iffy employment situation in which they're out money if they're out of work. So up the ante already. How about $100 bucks. Maybe you don't want to start paying on Day One, since that would mean paying people whether they were used or not. (In Massachusetts, if you show up and aren't put on a jury on that day, you're off the hook for those three bee-oo-ti-ful calendar years.) But if you're on a trial, you should get paid. Jury duty should not become a financial hardship for anyone. Let jurors who don't need the money waive it.
  • Reimburse for use of public transportation. Hey, I was lucky in that I could walk to the courthouse. My husband was not so lucky in his jury, and had to go to the back-ass-of-nowhere. He took a cab, which he can well afford. He would not need to be reimbursed. But someone of lesser means who had to spend $5 or so a day getting back and forth to court...Again, jury duty should not be a financial hardship for people.
  • Schedule trials that last more than a day or two so that people have time off for good behavior. I.e., two afternoons a week. Or no trial on Friday. I'm sure that if people were assured that they could get into work for a couple of hours here and there during their trials, the trials would be less of a, well, trial. Fewer "I'm too busy, I'll have a nervous breakdown if I'm stuck on a trial" types would weasel out. (For all I know, this may be how it works already. In the trial I was on, we did a variation of full and half-days.) This wouldn't work for sequestered juries, but for plain old trials it might make people more willing to serve.

I've someone who actually takes citizenship fairly seriously. I pay attention to this stuff. I know what bi-cameral means. I can name all the Supremes. I never miss an opportunity to vote, even in the off-year state primaries, and the mid-term elections that crop up occasionally for minor local offices.

Yes, citizenship comes with obligations. Like it or not, one of those obligations may mean serving on a jury.

That doesn't mean that there shouldn't be changes to the way that juries work now - especially if they're not working, as may become apparent this October when Suffolk County runs out of options.  (Note to self: avoid walking anywhere near Suffolk Superior Court House in October, just in case they decide to ignore my modest proposal and elect instead to dragoon innocent passers-by into serving on juries.)


*After the fact of writing Googling found reference on the American Judicature Society site to a study that found the following:

[An article on jury decision making] examines social science research on the effects of reducing jury size from the traditional 12, and concludes that in criminal cases smaller juries took significantly less time to deliberate; participation tended to be less and more variable; larger juries were more likely to contain a racial or ethnic minority; 12-person juries hung less often; and 12-person juries were no more likely to arrive at the “correct” outcome as defined by a majority of the population surveyed.  Social science research regarding jury size in civil cases was too inconclusive to warrant drawing any conclusions. (Dennis J. Devine, et al., "Jury Decision Making: 45 Years of Empirical Research on Deliberating Groups," 7 Psychology, Pub. Pol. & L.  622 (2001).  )

Okay. This sounds like 12 is better than other numbers, but what were the other numbers they looked at? Maybe it's okay to go with 10 during "jury emergencies."


John said...

They pay jurors $50/day in Boston? Wow. Here in Houston, you get $6.

But you do get a free ride on METRO - apparently you just show the summons to the bus driver and you're set.

I'll find out Monday, if I decide to take public transit - I got summoned. Of course, parking in downtown Houston is cheap, so I may just drive.

Adam Gaffin said...

You laugh about dragooning. In my cub-reporter days, I covered some towns out in the western surburs that, when they failed to meet their quorums for Town Meeting, would send the police over to the local bowling alley or whatever to force people to got vote on the school budget.

A big part of the problem, if you ask me, Mr. Called Every Three Years and Yet Have Never Actually Served on a Jury, is that to deal with the no-shows, they wind up having far more people report than they usually need on a given day. Maybe a little of the old enforcement might let them reduce the number of people they call.

Maureen Rogers said...

John - $6 a day? Isn't that what prisoners get paid for making license plates?

Adam - I think you're right about a little more enforcement. A few $2K fines slapped on and publicized might do the trick.

Tom Rogers said...


Your western brother, received, today, his second call to jury duty in two years. As I am not in Arizona this summer they put off my 90 days to start on August 1st. Our county has a pool, you get a written 90 day notice with a number, then a second notice that tells you if you aree on next week, you call in each night of the week and they have an automated answer that tells you to show up or not.

In our county (Coconino)it can take as long as 6-10 hours of driving to get to Flagstaff.

Last year when I got the call we were in the jury room for a number of hours before the judge called us all into court and reported we were excused. it seems the county sheriff made an illegal search at his home for drugs and the prosecutor knew about it, but this didn't come out untill just before the trial started (you could see the judge was pissed). The judge dismissed the case after the jury was called. We all went home and that was our jury duty.

Interestingly, the defendant (who got off on the original marijuana plant possession charge) is now incarcerated for a long time for trying to hire a hit man to kill the original snitch witness (his neighbor) and the prosecutor on the original bogus charge. He was in jail waiting the trial that was dismissed. If he had just kept his head down he would have been home free.

That brings me to the second "wild west trial". in our rual Washington county some years back, a murder trial was dismissed half way through, when the defendants lawyer finally read the autopsy report (obviously the prosecutor did not read it or could not read it). It appears the victim was dead from a drug overdose before the defendant tried to murder him in his sleep . Th victim and alleged perpetrator were buddies. The victim,had hired his friend to kill him because he didn't want to commit suicide, (which he did anyway). The payment for the planned suicide by murder, an old pickup truck. The defendant was convicted of mutilating a corpse and destroying evidence. A sort of a gruesome "Alice's Restaurant".

Ah criminal genius.

PS. How about letting the jury keep 50% of the fines and court fees. That out to help us set up a gulag of our own.

Tom Rogers said...


I forgot to say another effective way to get off jury duty is to show up in an Armani suit, with a Patek Phillipe watch and the newest blackberry sort of thing (really expensive laptops work) and sit in the front of the room looking really pissed off and busy. What defense attorney would want you on a jury for a street crime.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they should have proffessional jurors .Instead of shlubs like me who could care less the massachusetts judicial system is so seriously flawed,I want no part of it whatsoever,I mean lawyers go to school for years to become lawyers and judges. they call people out of their lives to deal with crime,Most people feel like me as thought their being held against their will,i think it stinks they should get people and train them do deal with these manipulative fork tounged lawyers and the crap their payed to shell out ive gotten jury duty 11 times from 1987 untill 2007 i hate it

button said...

a friend said most of his friends are police and he was tossed.its true.they are.billy button