Key issue for juries is representation

By Payal Shukla

The Citizens Advisory Committee on Jury Selection, or CACJS, will meet Friday to discuss the changes it is making to diversify juries in Champaign County.

The committee was created to look into inequalities between the number of minorities serving on Champaign County juries and the actual demographics of minorities in the county population, said Matthew Gladney, chair of the County Board’s Justice and Social Services Committee and member of CACJS.

“The Justice and Social Services Committee got together to discuss the issue of demographics of some of the juries in the county and the need to address it,” Gladney said.

“We decided to create a separate committee, and that’s how the Citizens Advisory Committee got its start.”

The Citizens Advisory Committee is working to resolve minority representation issues by making changes to the selection process.

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“Serving on a jury is a two–step process. Questionnaires get sent out to those who are eligible,” Gladney said.

“The county goes through the returned questionnaires and sends out summons.”

Jenny Putnam, CACJS member and former Champaign County Board member, said the current questionnaire is one of the main sources of conflict.

“We’ve found that so many of the questions on the questionnaire are irrelevant to serving on a jury,” Putnam said.

“They make people uncomfortable, and so they don’t respond to the summons,” she added.

Such questions, Putnam said, include family history about parole and probation, marital status and personal history of automobile accidents.

She said the committee has eliminated many of those types of questions.

“The changes were approved at our last meeting, and the new questionnaire is ready to be sent out,” she said.

“Another thing that will go out with it is a letter from Champaign County Presiding Judge Thomas Difanis thanking jurors for their time and service.”

Since its inception in April 2009, the committee has noticed that several demographics are overrepresented while others are underrepresented in Champaign’s jury system.

William Brown, member of CACJS, said the committee has found a consistent under-representation of Asians.

“One of the requirements to be a jury member is to be a citizen and about half of the Asian population in this county is not,” he said.

Young African American males also do not receive much representation, said Joan Miller, member of CACJS and chair of the Justice Committee of the Champaign County League of Women Voters.

The league works with the University’s College of Law to produce its annual Courtwatching Report, Miller said.

Students from the college watch court proceedings and complete detailed reports describing the defendant and the composition of the jury.

“The students see predominantly Caucasian juries sitting in on trials of predominantly African American defendants,” Miller said.

“The students have questioned whether or not the defendants are really being judged by their peers.”

Brown noted that one reason for this is that not enough jury summons are being sent out to African American neighborhoods.

Brown also said college students are severely underrepresented in Champaign County juries.

“I think the main reason the students aren’t summoned is because a lot of them don’t register to vote in Champaign County,” he added.

“They are county residents and certainly can if they wanted to, but most don’t.”

Find out more

Who: Citizens Advisory Committee on Jury Selection meeting

What: Discussing changes to the jury selection process

Where: Brookens Administrative Center, 1776 E. Washington St., in Urbana

When: Friday, Nov. 20 at 5:30 p.m.