Advisory Committee works to diversify county’s juries

By Mary Beth Versaci

Champaign County’s Citizens Advisory Committee on Jury Selection met for the first time on Monday to begin addressing the issue of jury diversity in the county.

“We’re just looking at the process of how somebody becomes a juror,” said Joan Miller, member of the committee and chair of the Champaign County League of Women Voters’ justice committee. “We’re looking at the problems of people not reporting and learning about efforts (the court system) is making to make sure all people are represented.”

Miller is one of the people in charge of the Champaign County Court Watching Project, which found a discrepancy between the makeup of juries and the county as a whole. The data from this project led to the establishment of the advisory committee.

Presiding Judge Tom Difanis said the county has begun to use a questionnaire provided by the National Center for Jury Studies to also gather statistics about who makes up the county’s juries. Jurors are given the option to complete questionnaires asking about their race and gender.

Paula Hannaford-Agor, the center’s director, will compare the answers to U.S. Census data broken down by zip code to see if juries represent those living in the community, said Roger Holland, court administrator. Because the county just started doing this, it is unsure how many people are responding to the questionnaires.

Champaign County sends out other questionnaires to members of the county to determine if they are able to serve on juries in the first place, Holland said. Recipients are randomly chosen by a computer program from those in the county who are both registered to vote and have either a state I.D. or driver’s license. About 200 questionnaires are sent out each week, and jury summons are sent to a random selection of community members who respond.

He said typically about 35 percent of those who receive jury summons do not respond at all, and 16 percent ask to be excused.

“We need to know who can and who can’t serve on a jury,” said Patricia Avery, committee member. “How does the Illinois Bar Association define a jury of one’s peers?”

To address this issue, Matt Gladney, committee member and chair of the county board’s justice and social services committee, said no one really knows who is someone’s peer.

“Just because of skin color, would I have been (the defendant’s) peer or not?” Gladney said. “We should be focused as much as we can on ‘is it a fair process?'”

The committee also discussed how to encourage community members to serve as jurors, such as using public service announcements to encourage younger people to participate in jury duty.

“The jury system doesn’t work if people don’t participate,” Difanis said.