How COVID-19 could affect the jury selection process

My wife and I had our first kid last June, three months into this pandemic life. By September, she had received a jury summons from the state. Needless to say, as a new mother in a vaccine-less pandemic world, she was not particularly excited about this opportunity, and of course, deferred it to a later date. She's since received another summons, which she also deferred — but you're only allowed so many deferrals.

I of course understood her concerns about being trapped in a room with a bunch of strangers all day, even if they are all wearing masks. But one thing I didn't consider was how the deferrals of people like her might impact the demographics of American juries — the topic of a recent op-ed in the Washington Post by Radley Balko:

Covid-consicous people are being excluded from juries, either through self-selection or with dismissals by judges. They worry these juries are even less skeptical of police and prosecutors, and thus are even more likely to convict.

There is some evidence to support their concerns. Polling has consistently shown a strong correlation between political ideology and attitudes about covid. Those who are more cautious about covid and supportive of precautions tend to be more liberal; those less concerned tend to be more conservative. (While there was a strong consensus among the public defenders I spoke with that covid has made juries more conservative, it wasn't universal, and I'll discuss some of the exceptions in a future column.)

The most immediate way the pandemic may be altering juries is who responds to jury summonses in the first place. "We're finding that far fewer people are showing up at all," says Dan Engleberg, chief of trials for the public defenders office in Orleans Parish in Louisiana. "So there's a concern that before we even start questioning jurors, we're starting with a population less worried about covid."

Balko also points out that, while some trials have moved to Zoom, many judges have been quick to dismiss potential jurors with spotty wifi connections — meaning more jurors who are wealthy and educated, and fewer jurors from rural areas.

We need this pandemic to end. But we also need fewer people in prison, which means we can't all sit out our jury duty.

Opinion: The pandemic might be producing juries that are more likely to convict [Radley Balko / The Washington Post]

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