Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

The jury duty problem

Some good ideas here, they just need to be implemented.

Marilyn Burgess

One morning in January, about 270 people crammed into the basement of the Harris County administration building for jury duty. Another 1,130 people who were summoned didn’t show.

That day’s low turnout is the norm in Harris County, with just 22 percent of people called in 2019 appearing to serve, according to data from the district clerk’s office. While the attendance rates are stark on their own, experts say, they highlight a wider issue that translates to limited diversity on juries that possibly deprives criminal and civil defendants of their right to fair trial.

“The more people you include, the more equitable the outcome is, the more likely you are to get a jury of your peers,” said Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. “When you have a situation where there isn’t fair representation on the jury, then you have unequal justice.”

Those concerns have prompted the Harris County District Clerk’s Office to pursue solutions that could make jury duty more accessible to residents, including a proposed e-Juror system that would allow people to register online and receive reminders in advance of their scheduled date.

District Clerk Marilyn Burgess campaigned in 2018 on the issue. Harris County’s jury duty attendance has remained perennially low, with rates never rising above 26 percent in the past six years. Last year’s actual participation rate — which includes those who eventually show up for duty — was slightly higher, at 32 percent. That rate takes into consideration exemptions, summonses that weren’t deliverable and reset jury duty dates.

[…]

The current summonsing system is also outdated, the district clerk said. Jury pools are picked from an electronic wheel filled with people’s names and addresses — all garnered from driver’s licenses and voter registration cards.

Using historical data, the district clerk’s office determines how many people might be needed for a jury and extrapolates how many people to call. The county then sends letters in the mail and waits to see how many people show up, Burgess said. On the first day, the county pays the prospective juror $6, an amount which state funds kick up to $40 on any following days of service.

Burgess said her office wants to streamline the process and create an e-Juror system, which Travis County has used for years, boosting its own participation and diversity rates. The system encourages people to register online after they’re called for duty, and sends text and email reminders in advance of the date — which isn’t even assigned until the user notes their scheduling conflicts.

After the Harris County jury committee approves and implements the program — at no cost — the district clerk hopes to ask judges to request a certain number of jurors in advance, making it possible to send participants straight to the courtroom and eliminate hours of sitting and waiting. Burgess said she also wants to increase the first day of pay, which would have to be approved by Harris County Commissioner’s Court.

There’s only so much that can be done about people who can’t afford to miss a day’s work because they won’t get paid. At least, there’s only so much that can be done at the county level – the federal or state government could do something about this if they wanted to. Getting a better handle on the need for jurors on a given day, dealing with schedule conflicts ahead of time, electronic reminders, and generally making people spend less time in a crowded jury assembly room waiting around to be called to a courtroom would all go a long way towards making the overall experience less of a pain. Let’s make this the year we get these things done.

Related Posts:

4 Comments

  1. brad says:

    Glad to see these proposed actions by the District Clerk to improve the jury process.

  2. Jules says:

    I have to wonder what would happen if the “extra” 1,130 people showed up since the 270 who do are “crammed” in. What does the fire marshal say about the building/room capacity?

  3. Michael says:

    The system in Austin worked pretty well. The one time Ginger and I were called, we went straight to the court for the Voir Dire. We spent a good while on our phones in the hallway outside the courtroom with 123 of our potential new friends.

    In a moment of extreme weirdness, we were both called to the same jury pool. She was number 38 of 125 and I was number 118.

    That was one of the things she mentioned to the judge that she should be excused due to details of the case. She was excused and my number was too high, so we had lunch downtown and went home, same as in Houston…

  4. C.L. says:

    Spent three months on a Harris County grand jury a decade or so ago…a jury I signed up/put my name in the hat for after not being picked for a ‘regular jury’. I was more than willing to serve and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

    The hat is gone, nor longer can you sign up for grand jury consideration. Perhaps they should reinstate that….