Let's Better Ensure Justice by Repairing Juries
The right to a trial by jury, far from being a new phenomenon, is actually right in the U.S. Constitution: “The Trial of all Crimes, except in cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury.” A jury is defined as “a body of persons legally selected and sworn to inquire into any matter of fact and to give their verdict according to the evidence.” Often, jury members are average citizens. That being said, citizens are people, and people are inherently biased. To balance this out, jurors are theoretically selected at random, in an attempt to even the playing field. Unfortunately, even with this and other protections, jurors’ opinions can often result in racist, sexist, classist, and ableist verdicts.
To even become a juror, you’re first "randomly" selected into a venire, a group of random citizens selected for possible jury duty. However, to get in this room, there are several requirements that you must meet, as you must be over the age of 18, live in the court’s jurisdiction, have the right to vote, have the ability to sit through an entire trial, and understand trial testimony as well as legal requirements issued by the judge (for example, you will be asked if you understand and can comply with dress code). Typically, you won’t wait longer than two months before the court is in session. Now, once the trial has actually started, the jury, the prosecution, the defendant, and the judge are all in one room where the stated goal is to make a decision on the case in front of them, that could potentially change lives forever. As long as there is no bargaining or plea deal, the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty under the charges presented, the judge might give a punishment, and the case is closed.
Because these jurors are randomly selected from the population, they may have biases against groups of people that lawyers forgot to—or simply cannot—properly uncover. For example, it may be hard for a lawyer to figure out how to tell if a selected juror is sexist, ableist, racist, colorist, or classist, which can affect their judgment. Because of this, lawyers spend time helping their clients appeal to the masses. For example, they often tell clients to wear glasses to appear more intelligent, professional attire to appear to be more well-off, and adopt courtroom personas to appear more approachable and friendly. Some argue that—because lawyers are aware of these biases and cater to them—it all balances out. However, thinking like that does not enable people to look past their biases, and worse, if the other side cannot afford those luxuries, it makes them less likely to be believed no matter the facts of the case. Additionally, lawyers cannot hide all identifiers that may lead to bias against their clients. For example, lawyers cannot change the race, name, gender, ability or citizenship status, income, criminal history, or education level of a client. While lawyers may be able to disguise their clients, so they’re more likely to appeal to the masses, a client’s physical appearance—such as if they’re Black, a woman, or have a visible disability—could potentially sway the jury’s decision in one way or another. Juries constantly seeing the defendant’s skin color, visible ability, and more within the court makes it hard for us to know if and when negative biases come into play.
It is undoubtedly true that human beings are biased, and that the physical layout of our modern-day courtroom in no way stops these biases (and in fact, only accentuates them). Unfortunately, tackling physical discrimination in the courtroom for defendants does not ensure justice to the courts. What can skew the jury extends past courtroom appearances. For example, the reported wage of jurors is just $50 a day, which is less than a full 8-hour shift at the federal minimum wage of $7.25, with individuals reporting being in session for up to 7 hours each day. That makes jurors who require their regular pay to meet their needs less likely to commit to participating in the jury process, and additionally meaning that many jurors may want to rush to a verdict before feeling they’ve received enough information, so that they can get back being paid at their normal wage. Further, in cases dealing with celebrities, mob members, and people in power, jurors have reported feeling unsafe coming to certain verdicts for fear of scrutiny and harassment from the media, public, and violent offenders/individuals. With these issues unaddressed, justice is not promised when you walk into a courtroom. In order to repair the system, the United States can prioritize achieving justice with a few basic and actionable solutions to alleviate these pressing problems.
First, we must reform courtrooms physically—jurors’ ability to see those on trial in cases allows their implicit biases to come into play. As long as jurors can see someone’s race, gender, and other physical identifiers, we cannot ensure every jury decision isn’t decided based on fear or negative biases. In courtrooms, there is always an official “Courtroom Reporter” who types a script of exact quotes from the judge, lawyers, and their clients. I believe courtroom reporters are key to making justice happen: if jurors could have a live view of what the courtroom reporter was typing, then they would no longer need to be present in the room, as they can still see the information being showcased and people being cross-examined. Jurors should also have access to hearing audio from the courtroom; while this may not prevent linguistic bias—like discrimination against certain accents or slang—it is certainly a start. With the jury separated from the courtroom, and restricted to audio and the court reporter's transcript, courts would prevent identities that are irrelevant to the case from being mentioned or known to the jury. Moreover, the transcription from the courtroom reporter being available would allow deaf citizens to better take part in delivering justice. This step would make race, names, and other basic descriptors invisible, during cases of robbery, assault, and other instances where such information is unnecessary to make a just conclusion. It must be noted that hiding race, ability status, and other identifiers—for obvious reasons—would not pertain to judging hate crimes.
Second, jury members must be ensured fair pay. People on jury duty must get paid the wage they would typically receive at their job, so that any incentive to rush to a conclusion in the trial process is removed. Those making more than minimum wage—if their employer cannot cover it—should be financially compensated by the courts for their average amount of hourly pay. For our tipped workers—in most localities receiving a much lower tipped minimum wage—they must be paid at the least untipped minimum wage for every single hour of their time. For our unemployed citizens, they must be paid at least untipped minimum wage for every single hour of their time spent as a juror. (here, I’ll also add my opinion that not only is $7.25 per-hour a disrespectful minimum wage for any human being, but also that a $15 hourly wage is additionally no longer adequate for me, especially in this crisis). By adding this guarantee of better wages in, we take away some of the burdens for many of the selected jurors and give them a greater sense of economic security throughout this process.
Additionally, the personal security and privacy of jurors should also be considered. The names, addresses, and phone numbers of jurors staying confidential can give them more confidence, since they'll then be less likely to be harassed for their decisions made during the trial. Jurors, in many cases, fear for their own safety, and have reported—after coming to conclusions that are widely seen as unpopular—that it's like being a “prisoner in their own home.” Many jurors receive death threats, and some jurors, even more disturbingly, actually end up dead. Some jurors have gone so far as changing their names and moving to a different state to protect themselves from backlash. Providing confidentiality will allow people to be less afraid of being jurors, and increase the likelihood that verdicts will be based on the consideration of justice, and not fears for one’s personal safety.
Juries are, often unintentionally, failing communities. As human beings, we all have our own biases to examine, and while we cannot eradicate bias from the world, we can work to prevent the biases of us and our fellow citizens from harming others. By removing jurors from courtrooms—so they can examine cases without biases based on physical appearances—we halt many biases at the courtroom doors. By preventing mentions of specific identifiers, we can force jurors to focus on the facts of the case, rather than the identities of those involved. By providing economic security for jurors, we can make them feel more comfortable missing work in the name of justice, and to carry it out more deliberately. By ensuring jurors' confidentiality, we can make them feel safer when they handle high-profile cases. These simple changes can ensure that justice is better provided in every locality and—in the long run—can help begin to tear down mass incarceration.