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County focuses on increasing number of minority jurors

URBANA—  Changes to a jury questionnaire have been made to prompt more participation from minorities in the community thanks to the efforts of a county advisory committee.
The Citizens Advisory Committee for Jury Selection , which launched earlier this year, was created by the Champaign County Board to get more minority participation in Champaign County juries.
Since then, the committee was able to remove some questions from the jury form that may pose obstacles to potential jurors among minority populations, said Chairman Aaron Ammons.
While questions such as marital status or “Have you or a close family member been a victim of crime?” may be relevant to attorneys once a potential juror reaches the jury box, they also could deter some people from initially responding, Ammons said.
“We’ve also changed the format of the questionnaire so it’s more reader friendly and not too complicated or too detailed,” Ammons said.
The committee’s other changes in the jury selection process include sending a follow-up letter to those who do not respond to jury duty.
The letter, which comes from a judge, emphasizes how important jury duty is and “encourages people to look at value of that service,” Ammons said.
Jennifer Putman, a former county board member and member of the advisory committee, said the committee is discussing continuing disparities of white citizens responding disproportionately to jury pool service compared with minority citizens.
“We are going to look at we can do,” Putman said at a news conference earlier this year to announce the results of the fifth year of the Champaign County Court-Watching Project. “It can no longer be said that nothing is being done.”
Nonwhites responding to jury duty summonses in Champaign County were statistically under-represented, as they have been all five years the report has been done.
The report on the study, conducted by the League of Women Voters and the University of Illinois College of Law trial advocacy program, showed for the year, 25 minority men and women were in the jury pools. Statistically, there should have been 68, according to the study.
For white men and women, there were 298 in the jury pools, while it would have been statistically expected to have 252, based on the county´s population.
Joan Miller, chair of the league´s justice committee, said at a press conference at the state´s attorney´s office that the project is the result of concerns about over-representation of white jurors in criminal trials in the county.
Steve Beckett, who teaches the UI trial advocacy class and is a member of the Champaign County Board, said the report continues a trend.
“The thing that´s concerned me over the five years of watching Champaign County courts is that juries are too white,” Beckett said. “We need to do something about getting people of color to the courthouse and serve on juries.
“Almost every year, we have more Caucasians show up for jury pools than we would statistically expect. Statistically, there are fewer people of color than we would statistically expect.”
Beckett said the Champaign County courts now have a continuous jury pool system and better data than in the past. The county may also look, in the future, at increasing the per diem pay for jurors, but the county currently has no extra money in its budget, he said.
Ammons said pay for jurors poses a significant problem as the current $10 a day per diem does not cover the loss in income some jurors face while serving.
Though some employers continue to pay employees called to serve on jury duty, others do not, Ammons said. So while some potential jurors may wish to serve the county, they may be financially unable to do so.
The committee is now looking at ways to increase juror stipends, he said.
“There’s poor representation when money becomes an issue,” Ammons said.
 By The News-Gazette and CU-Citizen Access


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