OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – It’s a piece of mail a lot of people don’t like getting: a jury summons. In an East Bay county, many people are ignoring them and getting away with it.
Early morning in Downtown Oakland, and the wheels of justice begin to turn. Filing into the courthouse, the men and women called to be a jury of their peers.
As one might expect, some people simply play hooky. In Marin County, about five percent of your neighbors are so-called “jury dodgers.” In San Francisco, it’s about 20 percent, but across the Bay, the number skyrockets.
Alameda County court officials said the “failure to appear rate” is at 68 percent. Which means 68 out of every 100 potential jurors did not show up for jury duty.
“I would imagine, when you ask them, that people are shocked by that figure,” said Brendan Woods, Chief Public Defender of Alameda County.
Virtually no one gets punished for it, and a 68 percent failure rate means the people who do show up are called back over and over again.
“We get a lot of complaints from our citizens saying, why am I getting summoned every year?” said court executive officer Leah Wilson.
Woods described those who are summoned often are “frequent flyers.”
Finally, this problem spills into the courtroom itself, where the economic realities of Alameda County are often reflected on the faces of a jury.
“I’ve been in a courtroom, in trial, I’m African American, my client is African-American, the judge is African-American, even the DA. That diversity is not reflected in the jury pool,” Woods said.
“The people that are supposed to be here, and add their influence as far as economics, racially, simply can’t,” said Joshua Best, a potential juror.
As for solutions, the county is experimenting with a new penalty system for repeat jury dodgers in Hayward, but punishment may not be the best answer.
“Another solution would be requiring employers, especially big corporations, to pay for jury service,” Woods said.
Until there is a solution, “frequent flyers” will keep racking up the miles, as the Alameda court system grinds ahead, with a 68 percent absentee rate.
“It’s still the best system. Just making it fair and diverse, that’s the problem,” Woods said.