Most of us have gotten a jury duty summons in the mail. For many, the initial reaction is one of annoyance or even anxiety. Serving will mean missing days from work or needing to scramble for childcare. More importantly, it will also involve lost income. Currently, only eight states require employers to pay their workers while they serve jury duty. Even then, states with a high cost of living such as New York only offer $40 a day for prospective jurors. As for California, which has the second highest cost of living in the country, employers don’t have to pay employees anything while they serve.
All of this translates into a lack of diversity in most jury pools. Those with lower incomes simply can’t afford to serve. And people of color make up the majority of those impacted. “Juries should reflect their community at large,” said attorney J.J. Dominguez of The Dominguez Firm. “Here in California and throughout the country, people of color are often excluded to the detriment of the justice system.” He continued, “I’m encouraged by the results of San Francisco’s ‘Be the Jury’ program.
The Be the Jury program J.J. cited started in San Francisco Superior Court on March 7th, 2022. The idea is to compensate lower-income jurors $100 a day for days served, whether they are chosen for a case or not. The alarming lack of juror diversity in this, one of the most diverse cities in the country was the motivation for this program. Jurors who earn less than 80% of the area’s median income and receive no pay while serving are encouraged to apply for the program on their first day of service. Those who are unemployed or self-employed are given the same option.
On December 1st, 2022, the county of San Francisco released a six-month study of how the program was doing. The findings prove the program has overwhelmingly succeeded in increasing jury pool diversity. Until the program started, jurors in San Francisco were paid nothing for their first day of service and $15 per day after that. 81% of those who participated in the program said being provided with $100 per day changed their perspective on jury duty and permitted them to serve. The study also found that the percentage of people of color who took part in Be the Jury was 63%, the same percentage of people of color in the city’s population.
J.J. added, “As an attorney, you want your client judged by a jury made up of individuals that bring different perspectives to the courtroom. For instance, motorcycle accidents can present certain challenges, mostly due to the stereotype of motorcycle riders as risk-taking daredevils in the eyes of some. On the contrary, studies show the majority of motorcycle accidents are caused by drivers. If we have a diverse jury, including individuals who ride or have ridden, we get a fairer evaluation of our case.”
The Be the Jury program is a step in the right direction when it comes to justice for all. Hopefully, other states will soon adopt similar programs in their criminal and civil courts.