OAKLAND — A jury of one’s peers is the cornerstone of the U.S. criminal legal system, but a new documentary by filmmaker Abby Ginzberg reveals that remains a rarity for many Black and brown people charged with a crime in Alameda County and beyond.
“Judging Juries” follows Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, who frequently finds that the people he represents are not being judged by a cross-section of their community, which has major implications for conviction rates. The documentary, which spans 22 minutes, delves into some of the barriers to jury participation, such as biased selection processes and low pay.
“We need more Black and brown people summoned for jury duty, and we need them seated in the jury box,” Woods said in a statement. “Too often the jury consists of a group of people whose life experience is nothing like the person seated next to the public defender. That’s got to change.”
Until recently, it was legal to discriminate against potential jurors based on race or gender. Even now, people can be disqualified during jury selection for arbitrary reasons, such as their hairstyle, clothing choices or mannerisms. Even when Black and brown people aren’t excluded for trivial reasons, the low compensation for jury duty often excludes people who can’t afford to serve, resulting in the jury bench being populated primarily by retirees and high-earning professionals.
A 2010 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California found that Black and Hispanic people are underrepresented in Alameda County jury pools while Asian people are overrepresented. Trials with all-white jury pools have higher conviction rates for Black defendants and lower conviction rates for white defendants compared to jury pools with at least one Black potential juror, according to a 2011 research paper out of Carnegie Mellon University.
The documentary spotlights a pilot program in San Francisco called "Be The Jury" that tried to change that by offering low- to moderate-income people $100 per day for jury service as opposed to the usual $15. The program succeeded in its aim to enhance jury diversity. During its inaugural year, over 60% of participants were people of color who wouldn't have otherwise been able to serve.
But last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 881, which would have expanded the pilot program to four additional counties, stating in his veto letter that the pilot program is outside of the budget and that the state must remain disciplined as it faces "continuing economic risk and revenue uncertainty."
"While I appreciate the author's work to create a more equal justice system, this policy needs to be part of budget discussions," Newsom wrote. "In partnership with the Legislature, we enacted a budget that closed a shortfall of more than $30 billion through balanced solutions that avoided deep program cuts and protected education, health care, climate, public safety, and social service programs that are relied on by millions of Californians. This year, however, the Legislature sent me bills outside of this budget process that, if all enacted, would add nearly $19 billion of unaccounted costs in the budget, of which $11 billion would be ongoing."
During a screening and panel discussion moderated by Justin Phillips, of the San Francisco Chronicle, a few weeks ago, Ginzberg said that puts the onus on the public to let the governor know that this is important and to advocate for higher jury pay.
More information, including how to contact the filmmaker to screen the film, can be found at judgingjuriesfilm.com.
Sonia Waraich can be reached at 510-952-7455.
Photo caption: Assemblymember Phil Ting of San Francisco speaks during a press conference at the San Francisco Hall of Justice in support of Assembly Bill 881, which sought to expand juror pay from $15 to $100 per day. (Courtesy of Abby Ginzberg)