Public Policy Forum Blog

Justice and the racial divide

In a recently released study, the Milwaukee County Audit Department analyzed the jury selection process in the wake of last year’s Frank Jude case, in which an all-white jury acquitted three white defendants in the beating of a biracial man.

The audit finds that people of color are under-represented in the county’s jury trials. Of the 3,856 jurors empanelled in 2006, the study found, 79% were white whereas 66% of the general adult population in the county is white. In contrast, 24% of the county’s voting-age citizens are African American, but just 16% of the jurors are. The audit acknowledges that any changes in the process of drawing the jury pools would require statutory changes and would certainly be challenged in court. Thus, more representative juries will not likely come from broad policy changes, but from tinkering with the incentives to serve. The auditors suggested several ideas for improving the racial balance on juries by increasing the portion of people who report for duty of all those who receive summons. Increasing the jurors’ daily pay or moving to a “one day or one trial” system are just two ideas.

If successful, those tinkerings may have as big an effect as would broad policy changes; the citizens of our region report very different views of the justice system depending on their race. The Public Policy Forum’s comprehensive race relations survey, released late in 2006, interviewed 1,000 citizens of the seven-county Milwaukee region, who suggested that creating a sense of fairness in our justice system is the greatest single challenge to racial harmony in our region. For example, the vast majority of African Americans felt “police brutality…is way out of hand,” but only 18% of whites felt that way. Also, 28% of African Americans -- but just 4% of whites -- reported someone in the family was in prison, on probation or on parole. Ensuring juries are representative could be a big step toward improving the perceptions of our justice system, for all those who encounter it…plaintiffs, defendants, and the jurors themselves.