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County Ponders How to Increase Minority Participation on Juries

Milwaukee courts can’t target specific neighborhoods

Feb. 27, 2008
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State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen put the kibosh on a plan to ask more minority residents of Milwaukee County to serve on juries. The Milwaukee County Circuit Court has been trying to find ways to increase minority participation on juries so that juries are truly “of one’s peers.”

Court records show that white Milwaukee County residents are disproportionately more likely to serve on juries than the county’s racial and ethnic minority residents. One potential way to boost minority participation would be to send more jury summonses to areas of the county that have more ethnic or racial minority residents.

But in an opinion released last week, Van Hollen wrote that jury summonses must be sent randomly. “While increasing the proportional representation of minority groups on juries might be a desirable goal, it cannot be accomplished by means that conflict with the statutes which are designed to guarantee equality of individual, not group, participation on juries,” Van Hollen wrote.

Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett said the opinion would not change how his office sends out jury summonses, which it currently does randomly. But he said that the court could use other means to increase minority participation on juries. A petition filed before the state Supreme Court would allow the court to use more up-to-date and robust data than what is used to locate jurors now. Currently, the court uses a state Department of Transportation list of those who have driver’s licenses. But that list, according to an audit of the system conducted last year, underreports minority residents “at approximately twice the rate of whites.”

Barrett said the petition in front of the Supreme Court would allow his office to use other data, such as lists of people who have voted, filed income tax returns, paid or received child support, or are receiving unemployment compensation.

Barrett said that these lists are more upto-date and would increase the court’s chances of finding potential jurors at their current residences. “It would improve our ability to use current addresses and keep the master list fresh,” Barrett said.

Barrett said the court has been using other methods to try to increase minority involvement on juries. He said his office has had success with sending follow-up letters to residents who have not responded to a jury summons, since it was found that minority residents are less likely to respond to a summons than white residents.

Barrett said more people are responding to the letters, partly because they clearly explain the consequences of not responding to the summons. There’s a $500 penalty for not returning the summons, and a $40 penalty for not showing up for jury duty. Barrett said the petition in front of the Supreme Court would raise the penalty for not showing up to $500.

“But we prefer to use the carrot approach,” Barrett said, instead of levying the penalties on non-responders. Barrett encouraged potential jurors to participate when summoned for duty. “It’s a chance to participate in government other than by voting,” Barrett said.

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