Each morning, I walk into the King County Courthouse past the jury room, and I am reminded of how integral juries are to the United State’s justice system. As outlined by the Constitution, a defendant’s opportunity to present an argument on their behalf in front of a jury of their peers is one of the most basic rights guaranteed by the government.
In most trials, the jury trial outlined in the Constitution doesn’t happen. The vast majority of criminal cases resolve in guilty pleas, where defendants are convicted without presenting their case before a jury.
Even when juries are present, they don’t reflect the diverse voices of King County. Researchers at Seattle University concluded that racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented as jurors in most jurisdictions across the state, although variation exists among courts.
It’s a serious challenge to respond to this disparity without a better sense of where in the system it’s arising from. Are fewer individuals of color being called for jury duty? Does the disparity become apparent in who reports for jury duty? Does the problem spring from the dismissal of jurors by attorneys in the courtroom? (Although, Washington State is leading the way on combatting the implicit bias often found in peremptory challenges, click here for more on this from the ACLU.) And more broadly, are there external factors, such as employment, transportation, or a lack of child care, that keep jurors from being able to serve?
During the 2019-2020 Biennial budget deliberations, I was able to introduce legislation that asks for the answers to these questions. The King County Superior Court will now be required to share their data in order to illuminate this issue. We’ve asked them to work with other King County agencies as well as community groups to investigate this issue and develop some recommendations on how to increase juror diversity in King County trials. This will include a breakdown of the current process for calling jurors, the current demographics of jurors and defendants in our courtrooms, and an implementation plan for any recommendations that they have.
My hope is that by breaking down the problem, we will be closer to creating well-informed policies that get more diverse juror pools into the courtroom and that ensure a fair judicial process for those charged with crimes.