The State of Georgia is such a frustrating contradiction: they have no money and the worst public defender system in the country and then they go and rebuild it and make it extremely effective and then it crumbles under the weight of a few capital appeals and returns to the race to the bottom, turning into a model of what not to do. And then they pass legislation like The Jury Reform Act of 2011 which:
allows court officials to compile a statewide database from a variety of sources – not just from voter registration rolls – to ensure defendants are more likely to be judged by their peers.
The fact that juries are never made up of defendants’ “peers” is a long running sad joke in the criminal justice system. I once naively asked a co-worker why we didn’t see more urban youth in our panels. Because they don’t register to vote, obviously. Voter registration records are where jury pools are typically drawn from, which limits, in a sense, the pool to only those who bother to register to vote. But that eliminates an percentage of the citizenry who do and should have the right to participate in the civic process. And one way to get more people engaged in this civic process is just by getting them to show up.
There will always be people who want to serve and those who don’t. This is true for people who register to vote and those who don’t. No one registers to vote just so they can get on juries, so there may be a number of potential jurors who just don’t give a damn about politics but can feel some sense of responsibility to contribute to their community in this way. The GA bill seeks to do just that – expand the potential jury pool, thereby providing a greater and more accurate cross-section of society from which to choose a representative panel.
“Our legal system is based in large part on the idea that our citizens should be judged by a jury of our peers,” Swingle said. “Whatever steps the law can take, through technology or legislation, to make our juries more accurately reflect the demographic makeup of our communities are important improvements to our courts.”
Citizens can be more confident in the outcome of cases that are decided by juries that more accurately reflect their community’s makeup, Swingle said.
So you’d think that all would in agreement that expanding the pool is a good thing. If you have half a brain cell, you’d already know what’s coming next:
When courts summon everyone who meets the minimum requirements for sitting on a jury – that they are county residents at least 18 years old and not convicted felons – there’s a potential of “diluting” jury pools, said Athens attorney Harry Gordon, who served as district attorney for Clarke and Oconee counties for nearly three decades.
Ready for the next quote? Don’t say I didn’t warn you:
“There’s a possibility (the new law) could open up jury service to every Tom, Dick and Harry, and that could diminish the validity of the jury system,” Gordon said. “If it liberalizes people that get on juries, it’s possible you could find more undesirable jurors, but it’s going to have to be tried because it’s the law, and we’ll just have to wait and see if it works more efficiently or not.”
Every Tom, Dick and Harry, aka law-abiding citizens who have every right to participate in the legal system. Or, to prosecutors, real peers of the defendant who have experienced the same bullshit tactics that police employ, who live in the neighborhoods and communities where crimes are committed, who may be better at holding the State to its high standard and who aren’t as predisposed to convict.
It’s well known that if we had a truly representative cross-section of the community sitting on juries, there’d be fewer convictions, not because “every Tom, Dick & Harry” is more likely to ignore the law, but because they’d be more likely to understand that not everything is black and white:
Athens resident Maureen McLaughlin, a political scientist who has worked as a jury consultant for more than 20 years, is excited about the new law.
“For everything we get in this country, only two things are required from us – pay taxes and serve on juries,” McLaughlin said. “By expanding the list that they use to select the jury pool, you’re going to have a more demographically diverse base from which to select and have a more accurate reflection of the types of people you have in your community.”
“You want to have at least someone on the panel who can understand the defendant’s life history, life experiences and those types of things,” she said. “When certain portions of the population are underrepresented, that does a real disservice to the community.”
Here‘s a breakdown of voter registration demographics in GA. Slightly over 60% of registered voters statewide list ‘white’ as their ethnicity. Blacks make up just under 30%, Hispanics barely 1.5%. Blacks, however, represent 61% of all inmates, Whites 33%. And yes, I know this isn’t a totally accurate statistical comparison, but I’m using the figures merely as illustration.
Good luck, Georgia. May the peach no longer be rotten.