by Laura Humpf
In December, the red postcard many dread arrived, summoning me to jury duty. I was intrigued and curious about my first opportunity to serve, and I showed up on a Tuesday morning at 8:00 AM with about 200 other jurors. I walked in and noticed a sea of predominantly white faces like my own. If jury selection is random, I wondered, why isn’t 30% of the room people of color, the number of people of color available, according to the King County 2011 census.
The judge came out to give us a “pep talk.” He shared how much people learn about the justice system from serving and lamented about never being able to serve himself. He shared a quote from a previous juror who found the experience incredibly rewarding. He then told us the per diem was $10/day, acknowledged that this would not pay for a car to park downtown, and that the per diem had not been raised since the 1950s. He said jury duty was a sacrifice he hoped we would make.
Jury duty did not sound like a sacrifice; it sounded like a luxury. Who can afford this? I soon found out.
100 names were read for a trial that would last over three weeks. My name is called and I pick up my questionnaire. The first question asked if serving would be a substantial hardship, and I shared that as a yoga therapist who is self-employed, I cannot sustain myself on $10/day for three weeks. As I turned in my form, I was behind an older white man. I glanced at his survey and saw, “none” under the hardship question. I, and over half the people called were dismissed due to a substantial hardship. It seemed the few people of color selected were also dismissed.
An older white woman next to me got up and walked out with the other white people to determine the fate of this case. It became clearer to me who has the luxury to serve—white folks with class privilege.
The sixth amendment to the United States Constitution states, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
The definition of impartial is “treating all rivals or disputants equally, fair and just.”
Yet, how fair is a jury if only those with wealth can serve? How equal is a jury when people of color or young people are not represented in pools, but are disproportionately overpoliced and impacted by the criminal justice system? How just is a jury when privilege determines whether you will be able to serve or not?
The pep-talking judge framed jury duty as an opportunity to serve—for the people, by the people. Who is included in “the people” and who is not, though? Jennifer Henderson, who identifies as African-American, middle-class mental health therapist sums up her experience of being summoned with the word “invisible.” There were three other visible folks of color in the room and “interestingly enough we were not in either of the groups that were called. We were the ones left behind,” she said.
What does a sacrifice mean for a person with wealth and race privilege and for a person without? Does it mean a sacrifice of time with grandkids? Or work piling up? Does sacrifice for someone else mean losing housing? Is it a choice between jury duty or putting food on the table for their children? What does it mean for the person on trial when only people with class and race privilege determine the outcome of the case? What does it mean if the person on trial is a person of color and/or cash poor?
“I wondered about the accused. Who are they? What did they do? How will they be perceived? Did they stand a chance of fairness from this group,” Henderson inquired.
The minimum wage in 1961 in Washington State was $1.15 and is now $11.50. In the 60s, a full day of jury duty paid more than a full day’s work at minimum wage. Today, it is not equivalent to one hour of minimum wage work in this state.
According to the Washington State Center for Court Research’s 2008 Juror Research Project, “jurors who earn more are more likely to be paid by their employer to serve while on jury duty, meaning that those least able to afford jury duty are hit the hardest when they do serve. If juror pay in Washington State today [in 2008] had the same purchasing power as $10 did in 1959, we would pay our jurors $70.14 a day.”
According to the Urban Institute, in 2016 white families had seven times more wealth than Black families and five times more than Hispanic families. White people, in general, have more class privilege, which makes serving for $10/day a greater possibility for them.
“In theory it is a great thing to choose an impartial jury. To represent the accused. To give the accused a fair chance so you have multiple opinions and perspectives on the case but it falls far short of what it could be and what it should be in this city,” Henderson adds.
The judge explained that we would learn a lot about the justice system if we served. In being a part of the jury selection process, I learned more about the classism and racism embedded in our justice system–and the ways jury duty is yet another example of institutional racism.
Laura Humpf is a Rainier Beach resident
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Douglas Muth