Here are three things I noticed during my day of jury duty last week:
1. It’s a hassle to have to skip two days of work to spend that time instead sitting around in a courthouse. For some people, it means losing two days of hourly pay. For others, it means falling behind at work and needing to work harder to catch up when they get back.
2. Much of jury duty consists of sitting around for hours waiting to be called on (or not called on). The day I served, 120 of us sat in limbo from 9 a.m. until noon. Some of us read books, some worked on laptops, some chatted in the back of the room and some just stared out the window.
3. Jury duty pays a tiny stipend. I got a check for $11.04 — the equivalent of earning $1.38 a hour, or about $2,900 a year if jury duty were my full-time job. That’s obviously not a living wage, but it’s still greater than zero, and thus not wholly meaningless.
These three things gave me an odd idea. It’s a pipe-dream of an idea to help address the historic jobs crisis that America is mired in right now. It’s also, I think, a wholly unworkable, impractical and impossible idea.
So let me first describe what I’m imagining, and then let me tell you why it can’t — and probably shouldn’t — happen.
I’m imagining a system in which jury duty gives preference to the unemployed. Jobless citizens will get called to serve jury duty once a month.
This involves Nos. 1 and 3 above. First, it reduces the frequency of jury duty for those with employment. They’d still be called to serve, but less often, thus reducing the total level of inconvenience and hassle due to missing days at work. And it would channel more of those tiny, inadequate stipends to unemployed people who could use even such trivial sums. A check for $11.04 won’t pay the rent, but it’s still (slightly) better than nothing.
Mainly though — and this is the promising part — the idea is to take advantage of item No. 2. I want to repurpose all that mostly wasted time prospective jurors now spend sitting around and waiting and put it to use trying to find jobs for jurors.
The idea is to turn jury duty into an ongoing job fair, to turn the waiting room for prospective jurors into an employment office. Job-seekers called for jury duty wouldn’t just bring a good book to read, they’d bring their résumés. The time now mostly squandered sitting around would instead be used to try to connect the unemployed with potential employers. Every business in the county would be encouraged/required to keep the county jobs counselor informed of any job openings. These would be posted in the jury room near the computers and the tables where the jobs counselor works with prospective jurors to facilitate networking and to assist them with résumé-writing, interview preparation, etc. (Yes, this job counselor would be a full-time county employee. See? We’ve created one new job already.)
Many days employers would be visiting to conduct mini job fairs. This could even be tailored to align with what the counselor’s database shows about the skills and experience of each day’s jury pool. (“I want to introduce Ms. Daniels, who’s visiting today from a local IT firm. Would the following six people please go to the table by the coffee machine to speak with her …”)
On the one hand, I see some real potential in such a scheme — an active mechanism for helping job-seekers in the county find employment and for helping businesses in the county fill any vacancies. But I also see many problems with the idea — including one huge, insurmountable obstacle.
The first problem is that any effort like this, designed to match job-seekers up with existing job openings, doesn’t do much to address the root of our jobs crisis. The main cause of our current massive level of unemployment is a lack of aggregate demand. Businesses aren’t hiring because customers aren’t buying. And customers aren’t buying because businesses aren’t hiring. Efforts like this one that don’t directly address that root problem are mainly just nibbling around the edges.
Right now, we’ve got between three and four job-seekers for every job opening in America. Set aside for the moment all the logistical difficulties of matching up geographical and skill differentials and just pretend that tomorrow, in a single day, we were somehow magically able to fill every existing job opening with a qualified applicant. That would be a frabjous day, but unemployment would still be somewhere between 66 percent to 75 percent of what it is now. That’s not enough of a difference to get overall demand up to where it needs to be for job creation to kick in as vigorously as it must to solve our crisis.
But it would help. We’d have some 3 million to 5 million more people receiving paychecks, and thus 3-5 million new potential customers for every existing business. That many new customers would surely encourage some of those businesses to hire more people to meet their growing demand and we would, at least, be moving in the right direction. So connecting job-seekers with job-openings is not a panacea, but it could contribute to the cure.
But the real problem with my scheme here — the reason it’s an unworkable fantasy — is that it would involve expanding the function of jury duty to include purposes other than jury selection in service of our justice system.
The jury selection process does not exist to help employ the unemployed. It exists to fill juries with a random cross-section of our “peers” so that those juries can determine the facts of criminal and civil cases fairly and impartially. Trying to piggy-back on that system for any other purpose potentially jeopardizes its ability to do what it needs to do as well as it does now.
My scheme would skew the pool of prospective jurors. It would mean that any given jury would likely contain a larger proportion of unemployed people than any other random grouping of 12 county residents would. It’s imaginable that this would affect the process and possibly undermine the integrity of the system. So basically there’s no way the justice system could or maybe even should allow such a scheme.
Still, though, I wonder if such worries are correct. How would having juries with a larger percentage of unemployed citizens serving alter the current system?
I know there’s a vast body of literature regarding jury selection. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have weighed every imaginable variable concerning prospective jurors to gauge how each might be more or less favorable to their side of the case. I’m sure studies have been conducted and articles have been written pondering the effect of having jury members who are currently unemployed.
I haven’t read any of that. It may be compelling and persuasive. Or not.
It’s quite possible that stacking the pool of prospective jurors with a larger proportion of unemployed citizens would not meaningfully change the random selection of the current system. Unemployment, just like jury selection, is a phenomenon that affects a representative, random cross-section of the populace. Thus juries composed of a greater proportion of unemployed citizens should, in every other respect, be indistinguishable from current juries.
In other words, I don’t believe that a prospective juror’s status as employed or unemployed is in any way worthy of consideration. Some might suggest otherwise based on the mistaken assumption that those who are currently jobless are more lazy, dependent, immoral, unskilled or stupid than other people. But despite all the demagogues preaching such nonsense, none of that is true. It’s simply a common way for the unprincipled to pander to the insecure. Reassure them that the unfortunate somehow deserve their misfortune and you thereby reassure them that such misfortune won’t and can’t happen to them.
Such foolishness is at least as old as the book of Job, but it has never been true.
It seems to me that if you’re looking to assemble a random and representative cross-section of American citizens, then starting with a pool of unemployed citizens is not meaningfully different from starting with a pool of all registered voters.
It is true, however, that the demographics of unemployment are not perfectly representative. Unemployment tends to affect a higher percentage of non-white Americans than of white Americans. And I’m told that, broadly speaking, prosecutors prefer juries that skew more white while defense attorneys prefer juries that skew more non-white. Since my scheme might make the pool of prospective jurors somewhat more non-white than the current system, it could be viewed as potentially making juries more friendly toward the defense. I don’t think this is a problem of my scheme itself, simply a factor that potentially might exacerbate one of the major existing flaws in our justice system. But I doubt that is a winning argument from me. (Likewise with potential skewing for gender, age and other factors that may be disproportionately affected by unemployment.)
Bottom line, then: This idea is fun to contemplate, but it is, and probably should be, impossible.
It is, as I said, an odd idea. Mainly I’m just hoping it’s odd enough to be the sort of odd idea that sparks other odd ideas that might prove to be closer to the realm of the possible.
And at the very least, maybe we could get a county job-posting bulletin board there in the jury room. Couldn’t hurt.