The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees anyone accused of a crime the right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury. Many believe that to be fair and impartial, the makeup of the jury (gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc.) should reflect the general population of the area. Unfortunately, that is seldom how it works.
The vast majority of criminal offenses are resolved through plea negotiations, and cases that do make it to trial are often heard by juries composed primarily of white, middle-class jurors. There are many reasons for this bias, some purposeful and some accidental. Many advocacy groups have been working to make juries more representative, and recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court enacted reforms intended to achieve that goal.
What changes are being made or ordered?
The state’s highest court has called for the following changes to be made to the jury selection process to increase juror diversity:
- Amending juror qualification questionnaires to include information about race, ethnicity and gender (embracing diversity rather than striving for a “blind” selection process)
- Generating jury lists by using state labor records instead of largely relying on voter registration, tax records and driver’s license records
- Requiring training on implicit bias for judges, court staff and potential jurors
The Supreme Court also called upon state legislators to pass two important reform measures. The first would increase juror pay, potentially removing a financial barrier for would-be jurors who cannot afford to miss work or cannot afford childcare while serving on a jury. The second would be to make it possible for more people with a criminal record to serve on a jury by excluding certain crimes from the list of disqualifying offenses.
One significant source of bias left unaddressed
Unfortunately, the proposed reforms don’t address one of the most potentially damaging sources of bias: attorneys. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys can ask to “strike” potential jurors for a wide range of reasons. While it is illegal to cite race as a reason for wanting to exclude a juror, an attorney could cite a different reason, even if the real reason was race. Reforms to this aspect of jury selection have been proposed elsewhere, including in New York, but they are not currently part of New Jersey’s recently announced reforms.
Why is a representative jury important?
Ideally, race, class, gender and other factors would have no impact on a person’s ability to deliver a fair and impartial ruling. But human beings are inherently flawed and prone to judge people more harshly if they view them as “other” instead of “like me.” Because we cannot change human nature, the best chance we have at ensuring a fair trial is to strive for a jury that is diverse and truly representative of the larger society.