CHAMPAIGN — While diversity in Champaign County juries has improved over the last several years, it's far from perfect, according to trained court watchers.
"We make slow progress and we have well-intended court officials and well-intended community folks who are trying to get the word out that jury duty is not onerous and it's important. Slowly, we are seeing some results," said Steve Beckett, professor of trial advocacy at the University of Illinois College of Law and a practicing defense attorney based in Urbana.
The eighth annual report of the League of Women Voters of Champaign County and the UI College of Law shows an over-representation of women on juries, while the majority of criminal defendants continue to be black males.
"One could conclude, tongue in cheek, that women are more responsible than men," said Beckett, about their response to the call to serve. "It appeared to go across races that women respond in better fashion than the men."
The report is the product of hours of observations done in fall 2012 by a couple of League members and the law-school students, who are required to watch 12 hours of court proceedings during the fall semester.
"Decisions in criminal cases, year after year, have more direct effect on minority citizens of our county, yet the minority participation in the court process is weak, perhaps too weak to describe the courts as embodying the diversity of our society," the report's summary concluded.
The authors noted changes that have been made in the last several years to try to make jury service easier, including shortening the term of service from two weeks to one, asking less-intrusive questions of potential jurors, and making it easier to respond to a summons for jury service.
The latter is an improvement set in motion about six weeks ago by Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman that allows potential jurors to fill out the questionnaire online, call an automated phone number to complete the survey, scan a quick-response code with a smartphone and answer the questions, or text a juror-identification number to an email address and answer questions by text.
Since the observations covered in the latest report were completed a year ago, it will be a while before the effect of Blakeman's latest initiative can be measured in terms of its effect on jury diversity.
Still, Beckett finds the change "encouraging."
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