On Oct. 29, the Washington State Supreme Court will hear arguments about an issue fundamental to addressing the racial bias that pervades our criminal legal system — the question of how much jurors are paid for their time.
In King County, the rate is shockingly low — $10 a day, plus a stipend for parking or bus fare. The rate hasn’t been adjusted since 1959.
Our organizations wrote amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs — individuals seeking to increase juror pay to a minimum wage rate (Bednarczyk et al v. King County) — for one overarching reason: We believe juror pay has a clear nexus to a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial. Why? Because low compensation means low-income residents in King County cannot serve on juries. They can’t afford to take a day off, and their employer won’t compensate them for time off; they can’t afford child care; they even risk losing their jobs if they were to take time off to serve on a jury.
And in King County, where wealth is a proxy for race, the result is an alarming racial disparity: Black defendants are routinely tried by all-white juries.
In a recent study, University of Washington Professor Katherine Beckett, nationally known for her research on racial disparity in the criminal legal system, analyzed the underrepresentation of black people in jury pools and found that there is a 64.3% chance that a jury in King County will have no black members. Most other communities of color are also underrepresented on juries in the county, she found.
This is an issue that should concern us all, because juries that lack racial diversity exacerbate the harm the criminal legal system inflicts on people and communities of color. Studies have shown that all-white juries deliberate less, are less likely to consider all of the evidence presented, make decisions predicated on racial bias and convict black defendants at higher rates than white defendants.
A study of felony trials in Florida found that in cases with no black members of the jury pool, black defendants were convicted 81% of the time, while white defendants were convicted 66% of the time. When the jury pool included at least one black person, the conviction rates were instead nearly identical: 71% for black defendants, 73% for whites.
Concern about jury pay is hardly new. Jury-diversity advocates have been calling for higher pay for jurors for nearly three decades. Indeed, one of the most exhaustive reports on problems with the jury system in Washington state was issued nearly 20 years ago. In its 127-page report, the Washington State Jury Commission called a fee increase for jurors “its highest priority.”
More recently, the state’s Minority and Justice Commission convened a task force to examine a range of policy proposals that might increase minority representation on juries in Washington, identifying in its interim report “economic hardship” as a significant factor in minority underrepresentation.
At all levels, courts in Washington have consistently acknowledged and affirmed that racially diverse juries are necessary to ensure fair trials. And just last year, when our state Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, it did so on the basis of race, confirming that racial bias — both implicit and overt — is woven into the fabric of our legal system.
Our criminal legal system is rife with inequities. Establishing more diverse juries by increasing juror pay won’t solve all of these problems. But it will help, and it’s unquestionably the right thing to do.