In the fall of 1996, I was selected and sworn onto my first jury. It was a civil case in Ventura County: a dispute between neighbors over a home improvement project’s impact. We listened for a week and deliberated for a couple of days, only to be told that the case was settled. They thanked us and dismissed us, never knowing that the jury had decided to award zero damages.
The twelve of us were paid $15 per day plus some pittance for mileage. We were not served lunches: we either had to pack a bag or go out on our 1 1/2 hour daily lunch breaks. Every person on that jury paid more to serve than we earned for doing so. Today the daily pay for California jurors is still $15 per day plus 34 cents per mile ONE WAY. Juror pay has not changed, yet the cost of living over the last 23 years has at least doubled in the Golden State.
In early June, I was tapped to serve on what was my fourth jury. It took seven days to select a jury, present evidence and reach a verdict for this criminal trial. Having served on four juries, I believe that the jury system offers the highest probability for justice possible, even with its imperfections. Without juries, our republic would not be capable of administering justice while protecting the rule of law. Every jury service has been rewarding and has reinforced my belief in the U.S. system of justice.
CA Jurors are paid for their time, but not well
I was compensated a total of $120 for seven days of service at the Larson Justice Center in Indio. My expenses for seven lunches plus the current mileage rate allowed by the IRS for business-related driving amounted to $294.28. After compensation, my out of pocket cost for serving was $174.28. I also elected to park in the parking garage at $8 per afternoon so my car was not 117 degrees when I headed home. This brought my total cost of being a juror to $230.28.
This amount of money is not going to make or break my life, and my employer did not penalize me for serving. I did have to spend much time at night and in the early mornings keeping up with the calls, questions and emails that are necessary to keep CVEP‘s performance at a high level. Not everyone on the jury benefited from having wage continuation. With the exception of the retirees who served, I may well have been the one who paid the least for serving.
No such thing as a free lunch, mostly
On the last day, it dawned on us that the only person in the courtroom who was getting a lunch provided each day was the defendant. We laughed it off, but the reality is not a joke. With such a low daily stipend for jurors and a tortured mileage reimbursement rate, juries will tend to be filled with retired people and salaried professionals.
Hourly workers – truly the peers of many defendants – often need to request to be exempted due to financial hardship. That not only compromises the spirit of jury service, it deprives working people of the privilege of serving. It is time for California to review jury compensation so that it makes financial sense for more people to serve. It is also time to provide a catered lunch and water to the jurors. This would make it possible for more hours of the day to be used to conduct the trial, as opposed to sitting in the lobby waiting to be called in.
The juror experience mismatch
Aside from financial burdens caused by insufficient juror pay, the working conditions for jurors can be sub-par. At the Larson Justice Center, the towel dispensers in the restrooms did not work, nor did the air dryers. As jurors, we had to shake our hands dry. Water fountains were hit or miss. All of these basic functions that were not maintained properly were right next to an over-budget jail that looks like the Four Seasons Hotel on the Island of Lanai.
Jurors are told while in the box that we are the most important people in the courtroom. It is time that those words were translated into actions with respectable stipends, food, and water.