Jury Duty Economics: The High Cost of Justice

The High Cost and Low Pay of Jury Duty
The High Cost and Low Pay of Jury Duty

When the City of New York politely requested my presence at the Bronx County Courthouse for jury duty, I was excited: I've always wondered what a courtroom looks like from the inside, and the jury box seems like a far more comfortable place to observe it than the witness stand or the defense table. But my second thought was fear: I wondered how my bosses were going to respond to the announcement that I would be missing a few days of work.

When I broke the news, they were surprisingly sympathetic, assuring me that jury duty was like a sudden hospitalization or a falling piano: the sort of workaday disaster that lands firmly under the heading "act of God." Besides, they pointed out, I probably wouldn't be picked: Lawyers hate putting reporters on juries. My co-workers, with mournful sympathy, reassured me that I would probably be back at work within a day.

In my area, which just happens to be the poorest urban county in America, jury orientation is focused on trying to keep people from worming their way out of service. The bored functionary in charge of prospective jurors assured us that an inability to speak English was no impediment to delivering a verdict; for that matter, neither was economic hardship.

And so began the excuse parade, as my fellow candidates tried their best to get bumped off the jury. While it's hard to determine which ones were bending the truth, it was clear that some prospective jurors were uncomfortable with their answers: When one stated that he couldn't trust a witness who didn't speak English, he seemed reticent, almost embarrassed about the words that were coming out of his mouth. Another admitted -- in halting, soft tones -- that she would have to rule against a defendant who refused to testify on his own behalf. When asked about occupations, a frenzied candidate took a wild shot at freedom, telling the judge that he had previously worked for Satan, but was now self-employed. Was he crazy, or just desperate?

As for me, I flirted with trying to get out. While I was waiting for my turn at bat, I tried to choose between the two books in my messenger bag: If I pulled out the Janet Evanovich novel, I might have to write off the next few days; if I pulled out the textbook on racism and the prison system, chances are that the prosecuting attorney would send me packing. A year earlier, when I was working as a freelancer, I would have gone with the prison textbook, but now I cozied up with Evanovich.

For Many, Jury Duty Directly Translates Into Lost Money

It isn't hard to figure out why people try to avoid empanelment: Apart from the lost work time, there's often a major pay cut. In New York, jury members make $40 per day. Granted, this is significantly more than most states pay -- California, for example, only kicks in $15 per day, along with 37 cents per mile for commuters -- but $40 per day doesn't even cover the cost of rent in New York City.

Unemployment is still at 9.7%, which would translate into a substantial pool of potential jurors with a lot of spare time on their hands, were the potential jurors not searching for work. When you add in the underemployed, whom the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as "Part-time workers who want to work full time but cannot due to economic reasons," the number jumps to a hefty 17%. For the unemployed, jury duty means time away from the job search; for part-time workers, it directly translates into lost money. A year ago, when I was freelancing and underemployed, the five days I spent on a jury would have cost me upwards of $600.

Even for those who are employed full-time, jury duty can be a hardship: In New York, companies with 10 or more employees have to pay for three days of jury duty at $40 per day, and those with fewer than 10 employees don't have to pay at all. After three days, the state covers all juror reimbursement.

Elissa Krauss, principal management analyst at the central jury support office for the New York State Unified Court System, notes that New York is feeling the pinch when it comes to juries: "The number of trials is dropping, but the amount that we spend on jury fees isn't." Since the economic crisis began, there has been a slight increase in the number of people that the state has to pay, but Krauss cautions that "we can only surmise about the reason. It may be because more jurors are unemployed, but it could also be because trials are lasting more than three days or because more jurors are working for companies that have fewer than 10 employees."

One Eye on Justice, One Eye on the Meter

As for me, the reporter defense didn't work, and I found myself on the jury, alongside two paralegals and a social worker, all of whom were equally surprised that they hadn't been immediately rejected. In fact, issues like race, gender, employment and even experience with the sharp end of the criminal justice system all seemed to evaporate before the biggest concern: All fifteen of us could afford to spend five days trying to determine the guilt or innocence of our fellow man.

As the trial continued into its second week, things got tougher: One member, a therapist, started to feel the hardship of lost billings, while another grew heavy-eyed as her all-night hospital residence shift bumped up against her daytime responsibilities in the courtroom. One found out that her employer was docking her pay, giving her only the $40 per day that the State of New York requires.

By the time we got to the jury room to decide the case, it seemed like most of us had an eye on the meter: After a few hours of argument, one juror joked that we might need to talk for another day before rendering a verdict. The room suddenly became very quiet as a soft voice replied "For real, y'all, I can't miss another day of work."

Within a few hours, we came to a decision. It's hard to determine if the economy affected our final verdict, but I wonder what the rejected jurors might have contributed to the discussion. After all, like the defendant and the chief witness against him, many of them fit squarely into the ranks of the underemployed. The question is, ultimately, whether the ability to serve on a jury and render judgment against one's fellow man is becoming a luxury, reserved for those who can afford it.

Originally published