Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Government: Welfare Records to be Used to Find Jurors?

This link was sent to me by a friend. Apparently, Pittsburgh is going to start using welfare records and income tax returns to get more jurors.

Allegheny County's top judge supports a proposed state law that would give local courts names and addresses from state income tax and welfare records to cover gaps in the lists they now use to find people for jury duty.

"I read this bill and I'm thrilled. ... It's a great idea," Joseph M. James said Monday at a public hearing of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee in Oakland to consider ways to get more blacks and other minorities on juries.

Democratic Sen. Jay Costa Jr., of Forest Hills, the bill's chief sponsor, said the legislation was prompted by a 2002 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review report that showed adults in the county's black neighborhoods were half as likely to be summoned for jury duty as those in white neighborhoods.

My friend who sent me the link questions whether this is the best way to construct a "jury of your peers." Certainly, having full and equal access to the jury pool for all citizens is of the utmost importance. But does a jury of your peers require a certain racial makeup? Should all misdemeanors by poor people be judged by a jury of poor people off the welfare rolls? What about white collar crimes - should Martha Stuart be judged by 12 overweening millionaire housewives? I'm not quite sure...

Reading it also reminds me of the ignorance that still pervades the public when it comes to human services. What exactly do they mean by "welfare records?" There is no "welfare" list where you can find the names of all the poor or black people in a community, though that is often the racist and classist perception. There are discreet Federal and State programs which serve people with specific, verifiable needs.

Do they mean the "welfare list" of people on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), workers who are so disabled they cannot work anymore, and have serious mobility, heath, and often mental health issues?

Or maybe they mean Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which serves mostly single mothers, required to work for 20-30 hours a week in return for $200-$400 a month. Their benefits are time-limited, and they often have serious education and child-care barriers.

Perhaps they mean Unemployment Insurance, which are individuals who recently lost their job and only have a few weeks or months before their checks run out. Having to spend a few weeks on a jury would not only prevent them from looking for work, it would prevent them from receiving their weekly check, as you are required to look for work every week you receive Unemployment Insurance payments.

There is no list of people sitting around on the government dole, with nothing better to do then sit on juries. Most people in America who are poor are work, but cycle into and out of crappy, low-wage jobs. The plain fact is that few people want to be on juries. And since they have fewer drivers licenses and register to vote less often, poor people are better at escaping jury duty. Is there a clear reason why we should promote some sort of convoluted affirmative action for the jury pool? I don't know.


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