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Editorial: Looking for volunteers in the jury system

A recent story in The News should be a call to action to advocacy groups and individuals concerned about the lopsided racial makeup of juries across the state and in this region. With just a few mouse clicks, they can make a difference.

African-Americans are underrepresented on juries around New York. It’s a fundamental problem and a troubling fact to some defendants, lawyers and judges. It should be troubling to anyone who understands the importance of ensuring that all Americans stake their claim in our democracy. Nowhere is that more important than in the judicial system.

So here is the call for citizen advocates (already doing good works): Ramp up the effort to close the racial gap by knocking on more doors, sending texts and tweets. Continue speaking at churches or local community groups. Bring a computer and encourage people to volunteer for jury service by logging onto nyjuror.gov, clicking “Volunteer” and filling out the questionnaire.

That’s key: Citizens are able to volunteer, though few do. Individuals who enter the system become eligible to be called to serve at a later date. Note the word, “eligible.” Volunteering does not guarantee a call to serve. But just like you have to “play to win,” you have to show up (virtually or in the real world) to be called. Employers are not allowed to punish workers for serving as jurors.

Racially unbalanced juries are common in most courtrooms across the state, as detailed by News staff reporter Thomas J. Prohaska. The percentage of blacks or African-Americans serving on juries is low compared to their population.

Census figures show Niagara County’s population as 7.3 percent black or African-American. Yet only 3 percent of the prospective jurors who showed up at the Niagara County courthouse in 2016 were black or African-American.

It gets worse. Erie County’s population is 13.9 percent black or African-American, but only 7 percent comprised prospective jurors in 2016. It was the fourth-largest gap in the state. Only two counties – Saratoga and Yates, which have tiny black populations – veer from the troubling norm. In all the rest, from Manhattan to rural upstate, the percentage of black prospective jurors is less than the percentage of the local black population.

Ensuring diverse juries is not easy. Notices are generated through a computerized process using tax, motor vehicle, voter registration and social services records, including unemployment benefits. Still, it does not account for everyone and, as John V. Elmore, an attorney who is black, noted, many poor people, including African-Americans, are not registered to vote, may not own cars and are transient. Low minority participation in Niagara County is exacerbated by lack of public transportation.

Statistics on racially unbalanced juries should motivate more people to volunteer. Jordan R. Patterson, the 23-year-old African-American criminal defendant cited in the article, would agree. He received a lesson in jury composition when he walked into the Lockport courthouse, where his trial on rape charges was set to begin. Of the prospective jurors – out of 86 – only two or three were people of color.

People should feel assured about the prospects for justice when entering a court system. That includes seeing a jury composed of a cross-section of the community or those with similar backgrounds, including racial makeup.

Advocate groups and the court system are already working to address this problem, but people have to respond. Volunteering for jury duty is one of the easier ways to serve the country, support the Constitution and reinforce the nation’s fabric.

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