AMHERST, Mass. - Jury pools in Massachusetts are made up of mostly white, educated, middle-class citizens, but the defendants they pass judgment on are disproportionately from low-income and minority communities, according to research conducted at the University of Massachusetts. The findings, based on an analysis of the lists used to pick juries in Hampden County in 1993 and 1994, are prompting efforts to modify the type of resident lists used to set up state and federal jury pools.
Christophe Courchesne, a junior at UMass, working with Gordon F. Sutton, professor of sociology and a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research (MISER), conducted the research into the composition of jury pools. Sutton and MISER are currently negotiating a contract with the Trial Court of Massachusetts to explore alternative methods of building jury lists.
Courchesne found that at every stage of picking a jury, low-income and minority participants tend to be underrepresented. This happens, in part, because those individuals are often undercounted in the listing procedures, are less likely to be registered voters, and can be disqualified if unable to read and speak English.
Courchesne says he became interested in this project after serving on a jury in a drug case in Plymouth County, in June 1999. The mostly white, suburban jury convicted an African-American defendant from the city of Brockton, he says. "In retrospect, I question whether we were truly a jury of the defendant''s ''peers'' as the American justice system supposedly guarantees," Courchesne says. "Many jurors had an obvious cultural bias, foreclosing in their own minds on the possibility that sitting on a stoop at 11 o''clock in the evening might be acceptable in certain urban neighborhoods."
Sutton says the questions raised by Courchesne come up often. "The undercount problems in the census certainly bear on this issue," Sutton says, noting that low-income and minority neighborhoods have long been areas where the accuracy of the census has been questioned. "There is also a relationship between participating in voting and jury service."
New ways to create jury pools are being considered, Sutton says, including the use of administrative records data. Similar proposals are under consideration in other states, he says.