Target 8: People of color underrepresented on W. MI juries?

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — There’s a push for change in the way our state selects juries for criminal trials after some critics say defendants aren’t being granted a jury of their peers in West Michigan.

After receiving a tip, Target 8 discovered minorities are underrepresented on juries in Kent and Kalamazoo counties and some legal experts believe the system Michigan uses to select jurors may be to blame.

Target 8 found Michigan is one of only seven states in the country that still uses a single source to select prospective jurors. The state pulls the names of potential jurors solely from the Secretary of State’s list of licensed drivers and state I.D. card holders.

Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana and Oklahoma are also single-source states.

The 43 other states can use multiple sources that include lists like unemployment or welfare rolls to select jurors to cast a wider net.

Rep. Brian Banks (D-Detroit) is pushing legislation to change the way jurors are selected in Michigan. His two House bills, 4406 and 4407, would add the names of people who file for income tax and people who are registered to vote.

“By doing this, the bills would make the jury pool more diverse,” Banks said. “Currently we have issues in several counties where there aren’t enough jurors on the pool to serve as well as our constitution affords us that opportunity to have a jury of our peers. If you have ever been in a courtroom or had a jury trial or sat in on a jury trial, most times the jury does not reflect or resemble the defendant in a criminal trial or the plaintiff or the defendant in a civil trial.”

Target 8 analyzed last year’s court data from Kent and Kalamazoo counties based off of voluntary surveys handed to prospective jurors and compared it to the most recent census. No state, with the exception of New York, is required by law to track diversity on jury pools.

However, Kent and Kalamazoo counties use the surveys that ask for self-identifying demographic information such as race, gender and age to keep tabs on diversity in their areas. Kent County had a 98 percent response rate from the surveys last year and Kalamazoo’s response rate was 77.5 percent.

Based on the census data in Kent County, the African American and Latino populations each make up 10 percent of the community. However, court data shows only 6 percent of prospective jurors were African American and 3.9 percent were Latino.

In Kalamazoo County, census data shows the African American population at around 11 percent and the Latino population at 4.5 percent. Court data collected last year shows just 6 percent of Kalamazoo County jurors were African American and 1.6 percent of Latinos were represented in the jury pool.

In both counties, the white population has a higher representation on juries than it does in the community as a whole. In Kent County, census data shows the white population at 83.6 percent while court data shows 86.3 percent of jurors were white. In Kalamazoo County, the white population makes up 82 percent of the community, but 87.6 percent of prospective jurors were white.

Target 8 took its findings to Kent County Circuit Court Chief Judge Donald Johnston.

“It’s somewhat disappointing,” Johnston said. “You’d like to be as broadly represented as possible and while I’m not looking for precise statistical equivalence on juries as we have in the community, I’d sure like to be somewhere in that neighborhood.”

Johnston said minority representation on juries is a statewide concern.

“I think it is because traditionally it seems minorities have been underrepresented on juries as near as I can determine,” he said. “When we call for a jury panel, we can kind of look out over a sea of faces and mentally try to ascertain what our breakdown is.”

Johnston cited several reasons it can be a challenge to seat people of color on juries. One of the reasons is unreliable addresses from the Secretary of State because people move around a lot. Johnston also said a higher percentage of people who are no-shows are minorities.

“Number one, we get our jury pools from data given to us by the Secretary of State, which includes driver’s licenses and state I.D. cards. The difficulty – if you think about it – who is the last person you notify when you move, probably the Secretary of State. Moreover, you have the fact that many inner-city populations, including minority populations, tend to move more frequently in any event, so there’s a lot of changes of address with which the Secretary of State is not always able to keep up,” Johnston said.

Mistrust of the system is another reason why Johnston believes some minorities are hesitant to participate.

“Particularly when it comes to the Hispanic populations, you may have difficulties with a language barrier and even some sort of suspicion that the government may be in some way spying on them if there’s people in the household that may have dubious immigration status so you get things like that that stymie the effort to broaden the base of representation,” Johnston said.

The lack of minority representation on juries is a problem that has plagued West Michigan for years. In 2002, Wayne Bentley, a former Grand Rapids high school teacher, found minorities were being systematically blocked from the Kent County jury selection process. A computer glitch was preventing jury duty summons from going to the zip codes with the highest concentration of African American households.

Tonya Krause-Phelan, who was a defense attorney for many years and is now a professor at Western Michigan Cooley Law School, said there may be no perfect solution.

“Some jurisdictions use voter registration,” Krause-Phelan told Target 8. “That is problematic as well because we have found historically that members of minorities are underrepresented in voter registration pools as well, so I don’t think we’ve come up with a perfect way to make sure that the greatest number of minorities are called in for jury selection, but I know that jurisdictions including our own are very cognizant of the issue and continue to try and make improvements in that regard.”

Johnston said he would be supportive of exploring other ways to expand the jury pool base.

“I think we’re working fine with what we have, but I think it might broaden our base further and that’s of course the ultimate goal so it seems as though those sorts of ideas should be given serious consideration and may indeed have positive merit,” he said.

Johnston believes participation in the system is also key.

“Progress is being made, we try to get the word out. I suppose reports like yours may help tell minority communities that it’s important that they participate,” Johnston said. “Number one, it’s an obligation and duty of all citizens regardless of their income status, their residential status, their racial identification or otherwise to participate when summoned. Number two, it’s important that we get the entire community represented so as to get the whole community’s views going into decision making on a case-by-case basis.”

Gov. Rick Snyder also weighed in on the issue and told Target 8 he is open to change and wants the criminal justice system to be fair and effective.

“I’m always happy to look at that if there are some things we can do to improve it because it’s part of our civic responsibility, serving on juries,” Snyder said. “I haven’t spent a lot of time on that issue, but if people have good ideas that we should be talking about, I’m very open-minded to having that dialogue.”

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On the web:

National Center for State Courts

Bills in the Michigan legislature

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