New committee will work to diversify county’s juries

By Mary Beth Versaci

Champaign County’s new citizens committee will address the issue of jury diversity after a series of reports showed demographic differences between the people living in the county and those serving on its juries.

The Champaign County Court Watching Project’s reports indicate that certain racial groups are overrepresented, while others are underrepresented in the county’s juries.

The Court Watching Project is led by the students of the College of Law Trial Advocacy course and the League of Women Voters.

While both groups have been watching the courts for several years, the project did not begin collecting formal data until 2004-05.

Including that pilot year, the project has released a total of four reports with its fifth expected sometime in April.

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“One would hope that the population on juries would be reflective of the population of the county,” said Steve Beckett, trial advocacy course instructor.

However, according to the project’s reports, African-Americans were underrepresented in both 2004-05 and 2006-07.

The 2006-07 report indicates that African-American males in particular did not appear as often on juries as expected.

They were joined that year by Asian males, who were also underrepresented in 2007-08.

Overall, the reports show that Caucasian females were overrepresented on the county’s juries.

Recently the Champaign County Board assembled the Citizens Advisory Committee on Jury Selection to devise ways to improve minority representation on juries.

“(The committee) has been in the minds of the county board Justice and Social Services Committee probably for five years, dating back to when we first began seeing and reading the court watching reports,” said Jenny Putman, former county board member and member of the citizens committee.

“There is an underrepresentation of people of color in the jury pool,” she said.

Putman added, “There is a pitiful lack of trust. People feel they can’t have a fair trial. There’s a feeling of, ‘There’s no one like me. Everyone’s against me.'”

Though there are not many African-American males serving on juries, they represent a majority of defendants, said Joan Miller, chair of the League of Women Voters’ justice committee and member of the citizens committee.

“There is an overrepresentation of black males as defendants,” Miller said.

“This is a concern for us as a society.”

Beckett agreed that the significant volume of minority defendants is a problem that needs to be addressed by the community.

“(Society is) satisfied in prosecuting people but not satisfied in solving its problems,” he said.

Putman added that some people may be afraid to respond to a jury summons because they are “turned off” by the courts and justice system.

“We want to try to understand all the reasons why people might not respond to a jury summons,” Miller said.

The citizens committee is concerned with addressing the long history of racism in the United States, said Brian Dolinar, english instructor and member of the committee.

“The criminal justice system is our civil rights issue for the 21st century,” he said.

While the county board approved the members of the citizens committee on Feb. 19, the committee has not been able to meet.

Made up of members of the public as well as officials from the county, the committee will possibly meet mid-April, said C. Pius Weibel, county board chair.

The delay in scheduling has come from choosing a day when all the members are available.

In the meantime, its members are eager to get started.

“We’ve started thinking about solutions, but not until we meet will we move forward with investigating these issues,” Dolinar said.