Posted on November 18, 2010

There’s a Shortage of African-American and Latino Jurors in Alameda County. Why?

Rina Palta, KALW-FM (San Francisco), Nov. 17, 2010

A new report by the ACLU of Northern California has found that Alameda County’s superior court “suffers from systemic underrepresentation of African-American and Latinos in its jury pools.” In other words, there’s a big shortage of Black and Latino jurors serving on trials. The ACLU took a sampling, looking at jurors in 11 felony trials and broke down in the juror pools by race:

• While Latinos are about 12 percent of eligible people in Alameda County to serve on trials, they represented 8 percent of the juror pool. Which means one-third of eligible Latinos are not appearing at the courthouse.

• While African-Americans represent about 18 percent of eligible Alameda County residents, 8 percent are appearing for service–less than half of those who are eligible make the juror pool.

• Caucasians are exactly represented in the pool according to residency and eligibility.

• Asian-Americans are actually overrepresented–26 percent of the jury pool; 15 percent of the eligible population.

The report identifies several reasons why Alameda County might be suffering this disparity: first, the county uses a computer system that may not do a good enough job of updating people’s addresses as they move, which could skew those called in by their likelihood to move (and therefore their income level); second, the county doesn’t follow up if people fail to appear for service (don’t tell anyone!)–studies have shown that courts can increase their pools by about 25 percent if they do simple things like sending a letter after someone doesn’t show up. Interestingly, Alameda County nevertheless summons about five times as many jurors as it actually uses.

Diana Tate Vermeire, the Racial Justice Project director at the ACLU of Northern California, who authored the study, says that attorneys who work in the county have been noticing these disparities for years. The county doesn’t seem to be deliberately excluding Latinos and African-Americans from juries, she says, and there are a number of options for remedying the situation. Mainly, updating the juror summoning computer program and starting to respond to those who fail to appear. Vermeire says the county does seem like it wants to act, and it should. “This is critically important,” she says. “People have a right to be tried by their peers and if you don’t have racial diversity in the jury, it’s calling into question the justice system itself.”