Bring the Power and Privilege of Diverse Juries to Alameda County

Alameda County should consider increasing the payments for jury service and all businesses should pay employees for time off for this crucial act of civic participation.
Joe Heller

Bring the Power and Privilege of Diverse Juries to Alameda County

A jury of 12 Minneapolis residents’ five men and seven women, four Black, six White and two multi-racial found Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree unintentional murder for the killing of George Floyd. After the jury’s decision, much of the authority turned to the judge, who recently sentenced Chauvin to 22 and a half years in prison. Appellate judges will likely control the case in the future. But we should not lose focus on the importance of those 12 jurors.

Juries carry enormous responsibility and have the incredible opportunity to create justice in our communities. Sadly, most people in Alameda County do not respond to their jury summons. This prevents juries from reflecting the diversity of our community and it deprives community members their opportunity to create the type of justice that we hope for.

“Jurors play the most important job in any trial,” said Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Colwell. “It is the jury that decides what happens, not the judge. That way justice is not up to one individual, it’s the community deciding what will happen.”

But in Alameda County, those important roles are usually filled by the same types of people. A large percentage of jurors are retired individuals. They have the free time to participate without having to worry about missing a daily obligation. In Alameda County, the employees of larger corporations like Kaiser and those who work for the government are common members of the jury, observed Judge Colwell.

Corporations and government agencies pay their employees if they miss work for jury duty. But individuals who work for their own businesses or have hourly or gig jobs cannot afford to miss work. This removes a large portion of Alameda County’s population those younger, less economically advantaged, and from marginalized communities from juries.

When people fail to appear for jury duty an incredible 68% of those summoned in Alameda County, according to a 2015 San Francisco Chronicle article they lose an opportunity to participate in the very criminal justice system which so many want to reform. Judge Colwell emphasized what a privilege many people consider serving on a jury to be.

One of her friends had recently become a US citizen and expressed excitement to serve on a jury. Her birth country prohibited any kind of public input in court cases, and she was thrilled at how inclusive our judicial system attempts to be. She was actually disappointed to learn a jury summons doesn’t guarantee a spot on a jury.

There is no denying that, for some, even if they would like to serve their community, jury service is an economic challenge. Judge Colwell runs into this issue almost daily. Although she wants the diverse population of Alameda County to be well represented on the jury, she also “would never want to create an economic hardship for someone, even though I want their perspective.”

The $15 per day payment paired with the minor reimbursement for travel is not enough to cover the missed work and other expenses related to jury service.

Alameda County should consider increasing the payments for jury service and all businesses should pay employees for time off for this crucial act of civic participation. Until those happen, when at all possible all of us should respond to the summons and serve on a jury when selected.

Across the country and across Alameda County people have taken to the streets and spoken out for change and reform to our criminal justice system. Serving on a jury is an opportunity to get intimately involved in that system.

The jurors in the trial of Derek Chauvin showed all of us what incredible power and privilege we all have as regular community members to create the justice we have been seeking.