Although the U.S. criminal justice system is supposed to give those accused of committing crimes a fair shake and the opportunity to have their fates decided by impartial juries of their peers, those juries all too often don’t reflect the diversity of their communities at large. Jury duty is often seen as an inconvenience that’s easy to brush off for many, even more so if you’re short on cash or work an hourly-wage job where it’s hard to take off time to serve.
That’s definitely the case in Harris County, where local juries trend older and whiter than the county’s population as a whole.
Harris County District Clerk Marilyn Burgess believes bumping up how much local jurors get paid for their time would make it easier for county residents to perform this bit of public service, and would hopefully mean more Black and Hispanic residents serve on Harris County juries going forward.
“Currently, for your first day of appearance, you’re paid $6,” Burgess said. “That’s not enough to cover your parking downtown.” Harris County jurors then make $40 a day if they’re selected to come back for more days of service.
Burgess has proposed to Harris County’s Commissioners Court a new pay rate for jurors that would offer them $50 for their first day and $80 for each subsequent day of jury duty. She’s also asked Commissioners Court to fund free parking for jurors who end up getting selected to serve after the first day, and to provide a marketing budget to inform the public of the new higher pay rates if they’re approved. Commissioners Court will likely vote on the proposal in their next meeting on Tuesday.
In general, the vast majority of folks who get summoned for jury duty don’t show up. “Our jury appearance rates in Harris County for the last five years pre-pandemic were extremely low, ranging from 20 percent to 23 percent,” Burgess said.
“And now post-pandemic, we’re down to 9 percent,” she continued.
According to Burgess, before the pandemic only 19 percent of prospective jurors who showed up when summoned were Hispanic compared to the 29 percent of county residents who are Hispanic and eligible, and only 16 percent were Black versus the 22 percent of Black residents eligible to serve on a jury.
Low jury pay rates disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic residents, who are more likely to be less well-off financially and work low-wage hourly jobs than their white neighbors. “What this campaign is really pushing for is that hourly worker, who if they don’t show up at work because they’re going to jury duty, they’re not going to get paid today. They’re living paycheck to paycheck, so they can’t afford to donate two or three days of their time to the county to serve as a juror because it means not putting food on the table for their kids,” Burgess said.
Burgess believes raising jury pay will increase the diversity of local juries, which in turn will lead to better outcomes and more trust in the courts, which is especially important given the skepticism many minorities feel toward a criminal justice system that far too often seems stacked against them.
“If we are to deliver justice, and people are to get their constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury by a trial of their peers, we have to have a diverse mix showing up,” Burgess said, “so that when a defendant looks out into that jury box, he sees somebody that looks like him, thinks like him, and feels like he’s gotten a fair shake.”
Burgess' juror pay proposal seems likely to be approved by Commissioners Court on Tuesday given how supportive the court’s Democratic majority, led by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, has been toward other criminal justice reforms in the past.
While this proposal would only increase juror pay through the current 2021-2022 fiscal year, Burgess and her team hope that it could be the first step to a permanent pay raise for Harris County jurors down the line.
“My belief is if we’re going to ask them to show up and serve, we’ve got to compensate them for their time,” Burgess said.