THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


A Jury of One's Peers

How low jury pay limits court justice in Rhode Island

by Olivia George

Illustration by Katya Labowe-Stoll

published November 15, 2019


 

This was not the first time Senator Elizabeth Crowley had served on a jury, and, for the most part, she felt eager and proud to serve again. However, this was the first time she had served on a statewide grand jury. While jurors in local courts typically serve for a couple of days, Crowley’s grand jury met periodically in Kent County over the course of six months, ending in April 2016.

During Crowley’s service period, it dawned on her that in Rhode Island, juror compensation stands at a flat rate of $15 per day, regardless of how long or in which court one serves. It could be worse—some counties in Alabama, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee pay $10; in Georgia, some pay $5. It could, however, be better. Connecticut requires employers to pay a juror for their first five days served, while Massuchusetts requires the same for three days. Both states compensate jurors $50 daily thereafter and have funding available for unemployed jurors. In Rhode Island, no such funds are available, and employers are not obligated to pay employees while they are serving on a jury.     

Crowley’s service on the grand jury did not pose an acute financial burden, she admits. At that point, Crowley was retired—she had been a Central Falls City Clerk for 40 years—with a pension. She was also serving her fourth term in the state Senate, representing District 16, which encompasses Central Falls—the smallest and poorest city in the state—and part of Pawtucket. She knew, however, that the vast majority of her constituents were not in a financial position to disrupt their jobs periodically for a six month period only to be handed $15 in return at the end of each day.

Astounded, Crowley asked the Juror’s Commissioner Office how long compensation levels had remained at that level. Since 1983, she was told. If compensation had kept in line with inflation, current Rhode Island jurors would be paid more than $35 per day — what $15 in 1983 is worth today, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Today, Crowley, in her tenth term as a state senator, is a torchbearer for the small handful of elected officials in the Rhode Island General Assembly petitioning for an increase in juror compensation, introducing legislation on the issue in three of the past four legislative sessions. Despite her efforts, Rhode Islanders serving as jurors have not received a compensation increase in over three decades. “Almost 40 years!” she exclaimed in an interview with the College Hill Independent. “I can remember 40 years ago paying 59 cents for a box of pampers for my baby,” she joked. “It was a generation ago.”

The issue is not that low income communities are being forced to miss work to serve on juries, Crowley explains. Those summoned for duty can receive exemptions on the grounds of financial hardship. The problem is that low jury duty pay inhibits low-income residents from serving, creating a major obstacle to achieving diverse jury pools, she adds.

In a nation where racism and classism are often closely linked, juror pay has routinely played into the broader racial bias that pervades our criminal justice system. Racial homogeneity in juries is widely shown to perpetuate the harm the legal system inflicts on communities of color.

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees each criminal defendant the right to a trial by an “impartial jury.” In a 1975 Supreme Court decision, an “impartial jury” was held to be one drawn from “a representative cross section of the community.” The principle is today widely synonymized by the phrase “a jury of one’s peers.” But Crowley emphasized that defendants who have a right to be tried by a jury of their peers may instead face a jury of people who can afford to participate in the legal process. “Are my constituents truly being judged by their peers?” she wonders. “Because many of them couldn’t afford to be on a jury, as much as they might like to.”

 

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The Licht Judicial Complex, located at 250 Benefit Street, houses both the Superior Court and the Jury Commissioner’s Office. William “Bill” Maguire, Associate Jury Commissioner, has worked in the Commissioner’s Office for 18 years. During that time, he has watched the compensation for federal jurors and for jurors in other states increase, all while Rhode Island has remained stagnant. “It’s almost embarrassing to tell people they will get $15 per day,” he told the Independent. “It’s a cause that has been dear to my heart for a long time.”

On any given Monday, some 200 people are summoned to the Superior Court for jury duty, while about 150 are summoned each Wednesday. The Court, which serves Providence and Bristol counties, is one of Rhode Island’s four Superior Courts. The group of potential jurors—the jury pool—is randomly selected from a list compiled from sources including voter registrations, state issued IDs and driver’s license renewals, Craig Berke, Assistant State Court Administrator, told the Independent. From those lists, summons are mailed. Berke added that the Court does not keep data on the number of people citing financial hardship as a reason for seeking exemption from their summons.

Affirming that the Court does not want “jury service to be a financial burden,” Berke added that data of this kind was “just not something that we have felt compelled to keep.” Each exemption request is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, he added.

Despite the absence of Court-collected data, Senator Crowley recognised that low compensation was affecting the ability of many of her constituents to participate in jury service. To this end, Crowley introduced legislation that would have raised juror’s daily pay to $35 a day in 2016. It was not perfect, she thought (knowing that both Massachusetts and Connecticut offered higher levels of compensation), but at least it was “a foot in the door.” The Rhode Island Senate passed Crowley’s legislation with a sweeping majority and was then referred to the House Finance Committee. There, the Bill died, never to be called for a vote on the House floor.

In 2018, Crowley tried again. This time, the legislation called for two incremental changes: the first to raise compensation to $25 per day starting July 1, 2019, then another a year later to $35 a day. Once again, the bill passed the Senate. Again, momentum fizzled once it reached the House; the Bill never passed the House Finance Committee. Crowley submitted identical legislation during the 2019 legislative session, calling for two incremental changes of $25 and $35 a year later. Third time lucky, she hoped. After the Senate passed the Bill almost unanimously, it landed, once again, in the laps of the House Finance Committee. There, it failed again. Representative Marvin Abney, chairman of the committee, could not be reached for comment.

“The bill was considered in the context of all the budget priorities,” wrote Larry Berman, spokesman for Speaker of the House Nicholar Mattiello, to the Independent. The financial impact of the legislation counterbalanced its recognized merit, he added. “In a very challenging budget year,” Berman continued, referencing the 2019 finacial year, “the House Finance Committee determined that raising the pay for jurors was not something the state could afford this year.”

By Crowley’s calculations, implementing the increase would cost the state approximately an additional $500,000 annually. A worthy price to pay for increasing access to justice, she attests. “I am very adamant about this,” said Crowley. “Why would people want to hold back on the ability for other people to serve on juries?” Berman did not respond to further questions about whether Speaker Mattiello had considered whether Rhode Island’s low compensation had the potential to undermine the right to be tried before “a jury of one's peers.”

 

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Concern about jury compensation is not limited to the Ocean State. Across the country, courts have long acknowledged and affirmed the importance of socio-economically, and racially, diverse juries to ensure fair trials. In an exhaustive report examining the jury system in Washington state and published in 2000, for example, the Washington State Jury Commission called a compensation increase for jurors “its highest priority.” Almost two decades on, the Washington State Supreme Court is deliberating the question of juror pay. King County, Washington, pays $10 per day, which is the lowest amount allowed by Washington state law. Plaintiffs allege that this level of compensation contributes to the systematic exclusion of low-income individuals and minorities from jury service. The ACLU of Washington and King County Department of Public Defense are among those who have voiced support for the plaintiffs.

And low juror compensation is just one way by which certain swathes of the population are tacitly excluded from juries without explicitly exclusive language, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Brown, told the Independent. Meager compensation compounds existing difficulties that restrict low-income community members from serving on juries: They cannot afford childcare, their employer is unlikely to offer compensation, and they may even fear losing their job if taking time off to serve, she added. “To have economic barriers that impact the poor disproportionately from serving on a jury seems to be particularly cruel,” said Gonzalez Van Cleve, adding that low-income people are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and that defendants are therefore disproportionately poor. “It undermines this whole notion of jury of your peers,” she said. “This, to me, is a major issue in terms of access to justice.”

Financial impediments to jury service disproportionately affect people of color because people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, said Gonzalez Van Cleve. And research has widely shown that exclusion of people of color from juries has a major impact on outcomes for criminal defendants of color. A 2012 study led by researchers at Duke University, for example, found that in cases with no Black members of the jury pool, Black defendants were convicted 81% of the time, while white defendants were convicted 66% of the time. When the jury pool included at least one Black person, the conviction rates were far more comparable: 73% for white defendants, 71% for Black defendants. As Gonzalez Van Cleve and others stress, findings such as these demonstrate how materially crucial a jury of peers really is. Although increasing juror compensation can only do so much to address the racial bias—implicit and overt—that is woven into the fabric of our legal system, it is a necessary, and long overdue improvement.

Senator Crowley knows that increasing juror pay will not resolve all the inequalities that riddle the legal system, but maintains that improving compensation would give defendants “a little more of a chance” of being brought in front of a jury by which they feel represented. She hopes that raising compensation levels will gradually help ease the burden for those experiencing financial hardship who want to serve, thereby increasing the diversity of jury pools. “$15 just isn’t going to cut it,” she said.

Though the topic is often sidelined, for Crowley, improving juror compensation levels will be a vital step in the march toward equitable access to justice. She’s already pre-filled legislation for the next legislative session, and is currently looking for a sponsor for the House version of her Bill. “I will keep chipping away at it,” she added, “until I get this passed.”

 

OLIVIA GEORGE B’22 thinks that the House Finance Committee should count access to justice as a priority.