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JUSTice in juries

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Jury duty has often been seen as the hallmark of good citizenship. In fact, serving on a jury can actually increase positive feelings about the justice system; but bad experiences can lead to negative perceptions of the system. However, the U.S. jury system is imperfect. The groups who we arguably need represented on a jury the most, such as racial/ethnic minorities, young people, and those without a college education, are less likely to serve on a jury. Racial minorities in particular are less likely to be called for jury service, and more likely to be excluded even when they are called. Lack of representation on the jury becomes even more problematic when members of these groups do not show up when they are called for jury duty (i.e., failure to appear).

It is important to understand why people fail to appear for jury duty. For many individuals in these groups, practical reasons might prevent them from showing up to jury duty (e.g., lack of transportation, lack of childcare, work conflicts). These practical and logistical issues disproportionately affect potential jurors from low-income and working-class areas. If potential jurors from these areas – of whom the majority are from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds – fail to appear, we can be left with a jury that is not representative of the actual population.

Other potential jurors may not appear due to negative attitudes about the justice system, which can be heavily driven by their personal experiences or media. In JUST: a measure of jury system trustworthiness, Bornstein and colleagues (2020) developed a new scale, the Jury System Trustworthiness (JUST), to measure which factors influence perceptions of jury service. Across three studies, they were able to simplify the measure to seven items that measured trustworthiness of the jury system, including six perceptions of the jury (ability, benevolence, integrity, impartiality, respect, fairness) and the degree the participant shared values with the jury (i.e., identification) (Bornstein et al, 2020). In Study 3, the researchers related scores on the JUST to verdicts, with participants who scored higher on the JUST being more likely to vote guilty in a murder/euthanasia trial.

In creating the JUST, Bornstein and colleagues (2020) identified several individual differences in perceptions of confidence in the system. They asked participants to rate whether a jury would remain unbiased (i.e., impartial), fair, and respectful (taken together, these concepts are known as procedural justice). There were several individual differences driving confidence in the system, with confidence being lower for participants who were:

· Black compared to White or Hispanic;

· younger compared to older;

· liberal compared to conservative;

· lower in obedience to authority (i.e., authoritarianism) compared to higher in authoritarianism; and

· lower in trust in police compared to higher in trust in police.

There were no differences by participant gender.

Trusting the jury system can be challenging, especially for citizens who have had negative experiences with the system. However, as a consequence, juries might be less representative of the population – people who do not trust the jury system are less likely to show up for jury duty (or indicate a lower intention to respond to a jury summons). Therefore, the voices that we want in the jury challenging the process are less likely to exist, let alone be heard. Given that higher JUST scores were related to more guilty verdicts, this could mean that jurors who are willing to show up for jury service are pre-disposed to vote guilty. It can be a vicious cycle, resulting in these groups having less trust and decreasing jury participation further.

The current system is stacked against minorities being represented on the jury – they are less likely to be called in the first place, less likely to show up (due to practical limitations or attitudinal reasons) when they are called, and less likely to be included on they jury when they do show up. Many changes need to be made to the system to fix these problems. Given the current levels of mistrust in the system and that good experiences on the jury can increase trust, the society would likely be benefitted by encouraging jury service from these groups. Because jury service and trust in the system are so intertwined, we need to make efforts to make the system both appear and actually be fair.

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