County juries more representative

By Erin Kelley

Champaign County courts have improved the demographic representation in the composition of juries since last year, according to a recent study.

“There was a good correlation between the pool from which jurors are called for service and those seated on juries,” the study stated.

The report was compiled by observations made by court watchers from the college of Law and League of Women Voters, said Steve Beckett, director of trial advocacy from the college of Law.

Two years ago, Beckett developed a questionnaire to gather information about the court system. The survey asked people to observe the way the judges and lawyers acted, any unusual proceedings, the race and gender of jurors, defendants’ understanding of the court proceedings, and other similar observations.

“We have already seen an impact,” Beckett said. “Last year the demographic and diversity of the jury was not reflected or consistent with the demographic of the community.”

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

According to statistics, 11 percent of jurors should be minorities. But after observation, only five or six percent were minorities last year. With further investigation, Beckett found that jurors’ address information was only collected once a year. According to Beckett, the population of this community is very transient so collecting addresses once a year is not enough.

Since the study, the county is trying “continuous jury terms,” which means that jurors are only serving one week in the four weeks of jury trials per month.

“This means a substantial increase in the number of citizens being summoned for jury duty and ultimately participating in the trial process,” said the study. “The full participation of all elements of our community is essential to the fair trial all citizens are entitled to and expect.”

The League of Women Voters has been court watching for about 20 years and has become sponsors in the study since Beckett organized court watching at the college, said Joan Miller, chairwoman of the justice committee. Miller, herself, has been watching courts part time for more than a decade, which is about two full days a month.

As a court watcher, Miller looks primarily for fairness: how the justice system moves, if there is room for improvement and how efficient the procedure is as well as what is on the questionnaire.

“Our courts are the most open that I know of,” Miller said, who has consulted with court watchers in other counties. “It’s really impressive how welcome the court staff has made us feel. The judges really seem to like having us there.”

The program benefits many people involved in court procedure. Law students get exposure to the courtroom with real people, and lawyers are provided with motivation to prepare for the case. Parties involved also feel as if they are receiving a fair trial.

In general, the court system benefits by providing observations of strengths and weaknesses from citizens.

Court watching is done to make sure things don’t go wrong, Beckett said. If there isn’t citizen observation, judges and lawyers would relax and possibly make unfair decisions.

“This is a unique project,” Miller said. “I don’t know of any other county in the country where a League of Women Voters and a law school work together.”