I recently spoke to a group of high school seniors at the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice on the importance of jury service in our society. The “Importance of Jury Service” dialogue began when I was President of the Houston Bar Association in 2005. I am thankful the HBA has continued this informational dialogue that encourages newly qualified potential jurors to appear when they are summoned for jury duty. Many of the class members were already 18 years old (making them currently eligible for jury duty), and the rest were approaching their 18th birthday.
The current statistics with Harris County are quite compelling for the need to educate our community on the importance of jury service. Almost 600,000 Harris County citizens are summoned on an annual basis and only 22% of those actually appear for jury duty. Our District Clerk has identified legitimate explanations for some of those who don’t show up (24% have bad addresses and the summons are returned to the District Clerk; 24% have legitimate reasons for being excused), but a full 30% of those summoned simply ignore their jury summons.
Other numbers are quite sobering as our country attempts to realize the full benefits of “diversity.” In the 10 Harris County zip codes with the highest juror turnout, all exceeding 30% appearance, the median annual income is $77,083.00. On the other hand, in the 10 Harris County zip codes with the lowest turnout, the median annual income is $29,636.00. Further, predominantly African-American neighborhoods consistently have below average turnout and the areas with the lowest jury participation are Hispanic neighborhoods.
The goal of the HBA’s dialogue on jury service is to increase juror turnout, and it does appear this program, along with others that focus on jury service are having an impact. Back in 2005, the juror turnout was 17%. Today, 22% of those summoned show up for jury duty. While 22% turnout is nothing to brag about, we are showing steady signs of improvement, and I hope this program continues to increase our citizens’ participation in this part of our democracy. I want to thank the Houston Bar Association and its current President, Barrett Reasoner, for continuing this dialogue on the Importance of Jury Service.