Author’s note: On July 26, 2016 I had another chance to show my civic pride. Following this post are the things I learned on jury duty.
I laugh when people preach about civic pride and jury duty. Sure, being judged by an impartial jury is one of the good things about living in a country that values the rights of the individual. That said, I’m not certain I trust my fellow citizens enough to not opt for a bench trial should I ever find myself being judged. Nevertheless, due process and its conclusion, facing a jury, beats being dragged out of your house without knowing why. We may dislike taking time out of our lives for jury duty, but need to appreciate the bigger picture. There is civic pride to be had in that obligation.
However, there is jury duty and there is jury duty.
Jury duty at Cook County Criminal Court: oh, the horror
You are lucky if you don’t live in a place where your civic pride will become a burden. For example, if you live in Cook County, Illinois there is jury service that begins when you are summoned to the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse, conveniently located next to the Cook County Jail.
The Circuit Court of Cook County is one of the largest court systems in the nation. There are many options for jury duty, criminal and civil. There are courthouses in the county that inspire a 12 Angry Men type of dedication, the kind of civic pride jury service should inspire.
Then there is the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, a place that turns the whole civic duty concept on its ear and raises a bothersome question about bias and impartiality.
Jury duty: from civic pride to civic burden
The Cook County Criminal Court Building is located in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. Potential jurors can catch a view of the jail while they wait for their number to be called, an unpleasant reminder of the warning issued during my orientation about where you can end up if you are picked for a trial and duck your obligation.
Welcome to jail
The county’s Department of Corrections complex is enormous, occupying 96 acres over an expanse of eight blocks.1 A Chicago Tribune article cited an expert who claimed the jail is one of the most dangerous in the country.2 Judging by some of the neighborhoods you pass through on your journey to the courthouse, many at the jail probably didn’t have to travel far to arrive at their new home.
Civic duty means a long cab ride to another world
I have been summoned to the Leighton Building for jury duty more than once. The first time I had no idea what to expect. The jury summons benignly gave public transit information. This seems like a less than stellar idea if it is obvious you are not part of the area’s normal fauna. There were no warnings in the summons, nothing about making sure your car is in tip-top shape if you drive. I suppose it has to be that way. If it wasn’t, who would show up?
The courthouse is inconveniently located. I worked in the Loop at the time. The cab ride cost more than the check waiting for me at the end of the day. This didn’t bother me. Civic pride being what it is, I felt I was paying my fair share. I didn’t know yet that my call for a cab to come and rescue me when the day was over would go unheeded. Do cab drivers not like to travel to that location? It’s hard to blame them. Who knows who they will be picking up?
Removing my belt and dumping my pockets into a bin as I went through a metal detector was a lot less disconcerting than looking around while trying to avoid eye contact. I remember two teenage-looking types shouting over the din, comparing their court appearance schedules so they could meet up later. I reflected that I did the same type of thing every day. The difference was that I knew I would be coming back from my meetings, not wondering where I would be spending the night.
That was the first hint that this wasn’t about judging my peers or about defendants being judged by theirs. Would my new surroundings strip away my impartiality?
We watched the obligatory civic duty video and then everything stopped. Every time my number wasn’t called I breathed a sigh of relief. Serving on a jury didn’t bother me, but coming back to this place did. When lunchtime came I chose to eat at a table next to a few jail guards. They were large and imposing. It seemed prudent.
My number never came up. The checks were issued. I called a cab. The cab never came. I finally got lucky and hopped into a taxi that was dropping someone off.
The next experience at the Leighton building was exactly the same. My number wasn’t called. I picked up my check. The cab wouldn’t come.
Criminal justice reform: can we put a dent in these numbers?
Over one million cases are filed in the Cook County court system annually.3 This seems like an impossibly huge number considering only 5.1 million people fall under the jurisdiction of the county’s courts.4 Over 30,000 felonies are handled by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office every year.5 The sheer volume of people that pass through the metal detector queues at the courthouse is stunning to witness.
The Cook County Jail has about 9,000 guests each day.6
In a speech on criminal justice reform the president pointed out that we spend $80 billion every year to keep 2.2 million people locked up.7 He observed that:
And we know that having millions of people in the criminal justice system, without any ability to find a job after release, is unsustainable. It’s bad for communities and it’s bad for our economy.8
Paying so much to keep people imprisoned also generates lots of public sector jobs. Someone has to process the paperwork. Someone has to cook the food for jail and courthouse cafeterias. Someone has to keep the bad guys safely behind bars and stop them from damaging or killing each other. Someone has to oversee the legal proceedings, prosecute, defend the indigent, and judge. Democrats calling for sentencing reform will miss those jobs, unless they are banking on change being more labor intensive than what we do now.
So many law breakers are locked up that we are finding reasons to let them go, even when their offenses fuel more crime. This brings a whole new face to jury duty when your civic duty takes place next to a jail nestled in a city supplying it with defendants. The Cook County Department of Corrections isn’t just a jail. This is a business with an inexhaustible stream of customers.
Can civic pride become bias?
Jail and prison populations have swelled along with accusations of bias in the ways we dole out justice. Pointing out that 1 out of every 3 black men will do time behind bars,9 House member John Conyers pointed out:
That is because criminal justice is meted out by human beings with real human failings, including bias. No longer does Jim Crow and overt racism rule the day, but rather coded phrases such as ‘policing high crime areas’ and ‘stop and frisk’ policies are the norm.10
During my two jury duty experiences at criminal court, neither of which involved serving on a jury, I couldn’t help but feel that I was part of a process that had nothing to do with civic duty or the luxury of living in a civil society. I didn’t feel I was there to do justice for my peers because I had so little in common with those passing through the bank of metal detectors alongside me. That doesn’t mean I would have been incapable of being fair or impartial. It does raise the question of how one can be impartial when thrown into a setting so unfamiliar, even threatening. Does the simple experience of traveling to a location like the Leighton Courthouse and seeing what goes on there cause bias against the defendants?
Those who had arrived for jury duty, or to represent or prosecute clients stood out. The jury pool seemed to lean heavily towards people who looked like they just fell off the boat into wholly foreign territory. People like me. Most probably don’t live near the courthouse. Criminals worry us. So do jails, but when summoned we show up to do our civic duty.
Is it possible to do your duty in a setting where like it or not, you are forced to make the association between a huge county jail, cattle call hordes of defendants, and the person whose fate you will decide?
Epilogue: summoned again
A few weeks ago I received another summons to the Leighton Courthouse for standby jury service. I don’t work in the Loop anymore. Now the journey is thirty miles of tough, winter highway driving. Recent expressway shootings in Chicago made driving seem unwise, but short of installing bulletproof glass it was the only option.
I had a conflict and had to reschedule. The automated system worked like a charm. Perhaps that’s the direction criminal justice in the country needs to take. Get in line. Dial a number. Plead your case and hear your sentence. If you have a lot of people to process and want real impartiality, nothing beats a computer. Computers don’t show bias. Only their programmers do.
UPDATE May 6, 2016: As promised, my civic duty was rescheduled for almost three months to the day from the original date at the same awful location I was summoned to the first time. The tale of my experiences will be told another time.
UPDATE July 30, 2016: civic obligation fulfilled
Lesson 1: the trip is still really unpleasant.
The 35 mile trip took two hours. That was pretty good time. I left early.
The moment I left the expressway and stopped at an intersection a woman came out of nowhere and began knocking on my car window. I have no idea what she wanted and didn’t think it wise to roll down my window to ask.
The drive to the courthouse didn’t improve after that and left me praying for two things: that my car didn’t break down on the way back and that I wouldn’t have to return the next day.
Lesson 2: lots of people don’t work.
In one of the neighborhoods I drove through there were young African American men in the park, hanging out on street corners, leaning on cars in the street, and apparently doing nothing at 9:00 in the morning. It was no different mid-afternoon. Lawn chairs had been set up on one of the sidewalks. The park was full. Was this Democratic economics at work, making sure neighborhood residents didn’t have to?
Lesson 3: police are really nice when they know you are not a criminal.
When the officers who screen people entering the building find out that you are a juror their attitude changes. They smile. They are friendly and very helpful. The officer who frisked me – apologetically, I might add – advised me to watch my things because “You are in a building full of criminals.”
My heart goes out to those who put their life on the line, deal with those criminals every day, and are rewarded by abuse from activists, pols, and the media.
Lesson 4: jury duty does create bias.
By the time I arrived at 2650 South California Ave. I felt like I had already driven past the people I would be judging if my number was called and I sat on a jury. That never happened, but the memories of the drive are still with me. Yes, just driving to jury duty creates bias. How could it not?
Lesson 5: politicians don’t value Illinois residents or their time.
Jury duty pays $25.00/day to sit and do nothing in a building full of criminals. At least the state deemed civic pride worthy of a raise since the last time I was called.
My generous employer paid me for the day and even told me to keep check I had endorsed back to the company. Hey, Springfield – how about a tax credit for businesses that pay their employees for jury duty??
UPDATE March 24, 2017: This week’s much-publicized shooting near the Criminal Court Building gave us another reason to question the sanity of our civic pride. Waiting in a jury assembly room is no fun, but it’s a screaming laugh riot compared to getting caught in the crossfire. What’s next for county jurors? Free flak jackets?
UPDATE July 21, 2018: what do a judge and his gun tell us?
Most of us don’t carry handguns to work, but most of don’t work in a place like the Leighton Building. A video clip of a judge dropping a pistol on the courthouse premises made the rounds earlier this month. According to the Chicago Tribune11 the judge was charged with a misdemeanor for his lapse.
I can’t speak to why the judge was carrying a gun, but I don’t think anyone who has visited this courthouse even once will be surprised. Working in that environment and hearing stories every day of what some of Chicago’s worst do to people would make any sane person think about carrying a weapon. Judges assigned to this location hear things most of us don’t even want to think about. Media coverage of shootings at or near the courthouse make the walk from the parking garage a hurdle in itself
Jurors who have heard this story and are required by law to venture to this faraway place will wonder why a judge who knows a lot more about what goes on there than they do wants to carry a gun. I can’t say that those ruminations create bias, but they certainly won’t make contemplating the trip the courthouse more pleasant.
UPDATE September 16, 2018: civic duty vs. society’s demands: can jury duty forbid a not guilty verdict?
I can’t imagine a worse place for a juror to be than sitting in the jury box in the Leighton Building waiting for Jason Van Dyke’s trial to get underway.
Nearly four years ago the nation heard the story about a Chicago Police Officer firing 16 shots at a black youth with a knife.
Senators and representatives from Illinois spoke their peace:
Families like Laquan McDonald’s that have experienced heartbreak are no less deserving of justice than any other family, but too often they don’t get it.12
Illinois Congressman Bill Foster chastised the nation:
We should be ashamed of how our society failed Laquan McDonald.13
Then he demanded justice outright:
We should all be working to ensure that Laquan gets the justice that he has been denied for so long and to end the cycle of poverty, abuse, and injustice that shaped his life.14
Now the jurors are chosen. Protesters flocked to 26th & California. The city ruminates over what might happen if this jury fails to convict. The country is watching. No matter the decision, we can expect the outcome to weigh heavily on midterm election talking points as Democratic candidates seek to gain advantage from the race issue.
Van Dyke has already been tried and found guilty by prominent voices and the media. Society has assigned jurors the responsibility to do the right thing for black Americans and the nation. That means convicting this defendant because the consequences for a not guilty verdict are too unpleasant to contemplate.
Our society claims that every defendant has the right to a fair trial and devised the civic obligation of jury duty to make sure it happens. In this instance society has also introduced unimaginable bias and demands an outcome separate from anything that happens in the courtroom or in the minds of these jurors.