The state judiciary is recommending that newly released prison inmates and non-citizens be allowed to serve as jurors in state court as a step toward eliminating racial bias in the system now used to seat juries in civil and criminal trials.
“I’ve completed a preliminary review of the report, and the recommendations are excellent and extensive,” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson said Tuesday. “At this point, I anticipate implementing many of them, and I believe they will have a profound effect on our ability to ensure fair and impartial justice for all.”
The recommendations concerning convicts and non-citizens are the most notable among a half dozen that the task force report says will increase the racial and economic diversity of people eligible to serve on juries and guarantee closer compliance with Constitutional requirements that juries reflect the broader society.
The state Supreme Court ordered the jury diversity study in State v. Evan Jaron Holmes, a 2019 case in which a a man convicted of manslaughter and home invasion appealed, claiming he was denied a fair trial because an African-American had been excused from the jury pool. The state high court upheld the convictions, but ordered a study on the fairness and inclusiveness of the jury process.
The task force recommendations are in the form of proposed legislation that will be forwarded to the General Assembly for consideration in its ongoing session.
To increase the pool of people eligible for jury duty, the task force recommends that legal permanent residents who are not citizens be made eligible, something that is not permitted in jurisdictions elsewhere in the country. Additionally the task force recommends eliminating a 7-year ban on restoring a felon’s right to serve on a jury – although it notes that “anyone physically in a Department of Correction facility would not be permitted to serve on a jury.” Also, the age at which people can opt out of service would be raised to 75 from 70.
The task force report says the rationale for the proposals is that permanent lawful residents are part of the “community” served by the court system, are equally susceptible to criminal prosecution and civil process, and that the citizenship requirement disproportionately excludes Hispanics. Blacks, the report says, are disproportionately affected by the 7-year ban on restoring a felon’s right to serve on a jury. And, because people are living longer and healthier lives, most are capable of serving until age 75.
There also is a proposal to pay unemployed or part time jurors the prevailing minimum wage and reimbursement for travel and day care expenses. Full time employees not compensated by their employers would also get a minimum wage after the fifth day of service, instead of the existing $50 reimbursement.
The state Judicial Branch said the rationale for the compensation proposals is to incentivize juror participation by low-wage, potential jurors, who are often members of minority groups: “Compensation and reimbursement impacts low wage earner’s willingness and ability to serve, which consequently has a greater impact on minorities. Even full time employees who must be paid by their employers for only the first five days of jury service, can suffer hardship from the sixth day forward based on the current rate of pay, which is only $50 per day. This rate is now well below the minimum wage.”
The report also recommends adjusting the system by which jurors are summoned in order to increase the statistical likelihood that juries represent “a fair cross-section of the population in their respective judicial districts.” Among other things, the task force proposes replacing the existing system – which mails summons in proportion to the population of each town in the judicial district – with one in which summons are adjusted to reflect the rate at which potential jurors in each town actually comply.
The task force chairmen are retired Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers and Superior Court Judge Omar A. Williams.
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