Working For Jury Diversity
It’s part of our Constitution. The 6th and 14th amendments guarantee a defendant’s right to an impartial jury selected from a fair cross section of the community. But here in southeast Michigan, some defendants can have a problem finding a jury of their peers.
US District Judge Denise Page Hood says, “Our juries represent our population, but they don’t represent it as much as they should.”
This is a bigger problem in Federal Court where Judge Hood presides. The Detroit Division of the Eastern District is made up of nine counties, from Sanilac to Monroe. The largest number of minorities are in Wayne County. But finding jurors from Wayne County has been a challenge. According to Judge Hood, “We send out questionnaires and what would happen is we get ones that were not delivered, which are called undeliverables, they would be returned to the court.”
About 5000 questionnaires go out to potential jurors every two or three months. But with so many people moving due to foreclosure or job loss, many forms go to homes where no one lives. Many more reach the right mailbox, but are simply ignored.
Judge Hood says, “Those undeliverables and those non-responses are higher in the City of Detroit — significantly higher in the City of Detroit — where we know most of our African Americans and Latino community are situated.”
So the balance is off. In a district that is 20 percent minority, the jury pool is only about 11 percent. That’s a problem says Chief Federal Defender Miriam Siefer, “You have a segment of the community that is frankly just not participating and it calls into question the legitimacy of the verdicts and many clients who sit there and see the jury composition frankly feel cheated.”
The makeup of the jury has become an issue in the trials of political consultant Sam Riddle, Former Detroit Council Member Alonzo Bates and attorneys for Bobby Ferguson also tried to make jury diversity an issue in his current bid rigging trial.
Siefer says, “We’re really talking about people’s liberty and you want to have the soundness and the legitimacy of those verdicts and there’s really no greater kind of participation in the criminal justice system than serving on a jury.”
The court is working to increase jury diversity. A consultant was called in and a 94-page report including several suggestions was prepared by an ad hoc committee of judges, including Judge Hood, “One of the things the court found was that we probably didn’t consult the national change of address list as often as we should.” And when a questionnaire isn’t returned, a second one will go out to another potential juror in the same zip code.
The committee came up with other suggestions but they want to hear your ideas too. So our New Michigan Media partner, the Michigan Chronicle, is holding a panel discussion on the issue next Wednesday, June 27th.
Michigan Chronicle editor Bankole Thompson told us, “It’s the first of its kind to have sitting members of the judiciary, chief judge of the federal court, and the federal judge on this panel. I think there’s a need to address this issue and its important for it on the public record to say in fact the federal court is trying to address this issue in a constructive way.”
But everyone we talked to said the first step is for people to fill out their questionnaires and to show up when they’re summoned for jury duty.
- If you receive a juror questionnaire fill it out and send it back.
- If a questionnaire comes to your home for someone who doesn’t live there, return it to the court with any information you may have on the person listed.
- If you receive a summons, show up for jury duty.
- Attend the seminar sponsored by the Michigan Chronicle. The forum, titled “Inclusion and the Justice System: Why Jury Diversity Matters,” is open to the public and will take place Wednesday, June 27, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD), Downtown Campus, in the Multipurpose Room 236, hosted by the WCCCD Global Conversation Speaker Series. Click here for more information.
- If you have suggestions for ways to increase participation, let us know. We’ll pass them on the the courts.