This week I got sucked into jury duty. The last time I did it I was very young and didn’t really care about giving up a whole day to sit in a courtroom for just a few dollars. Heck, at that age they could have given me anything and I would have thought it a windfall. I actually enjoyed that first time. I thought it was great fun to sit in a courtroom and listen to the lawyers and watch the people. At the time I couldn’t see why so many people go to great lengths to get out of jury duty. Now that I’m older, however, I see the problem.
Jury service, while a responsibility that goes along with citizenship in this country, simply does not pay enough to make it tolerable for most people. Consider this an open letter to our state governments to increase the pay for jury duty.
Jury duty, in and of itself, is not a hardship. It’s not difficult to go sit in a courtroom for a couple of days, hear a case and render a verdict. It’s even pretty interesting to watch our court system in action. Unless you really adore your job, a day of jury duty is probably a welcome respite from the cube farm. The problem comes in when you need to be at your job in order to make money and jury duty takes you away from that.
The good news is that most states have laws that prohibit an employer from firing you because you are on jury duty. So at least you’re guaranteed to have a job to come back to. However, the bad news is that there are no laws that require an employer to pay you for the time you’re serving. For some salaried employees this is less of a problem as some companies will just pay their salaried employees for the days they serve. Or you can opt to take vacation or sick leave and still get paid for the time you serve. Inconvenient and annoying? Yes. But at least you can still make money. But most hourly jobs will only pay for hours worked. Jury duty means you aren’t working so you aren’t getting paid. The self employed are in the same boat. If you’re not working, you’re not bringing money in.
This wouldn’t be a problem if jury service paid a reasonable wage. However, it simply doesn’t. In my state, the going rate is $10 per day for an eight hour day. In many states it isn’t much better. The highest pay I found is in Arkansas, which pays $50 per day. Some fortunate few states also pay for mileage, but not mine. Where I live, $10 per day barely pays for my gas to get to the courthouse, as the courthouse is on the other side of the county. I don’t know when jury pay was last considered here, but clearly it hasn’t taken the increase in gas prices into account.
At $10 per day, is it any wonder that so many people are kicking and screaming and lying to get out of jury service? People that need to be at work to make money can’t afford to be on jury duty. Even if you’re lucky enough to live in Arkansas and get $50 per day, an eight hour day of service is netting you a whopping $6.25 per hour. Any job pays more than this. My teenage baby sitting gigs paid better than this. Even if you’re making minimum wage you’re raking it in compared to serving on a jury. Being self employed, all I could think the whole time I was sitting there was how much money I was losing by not being at my desk.
While I was waiting to be called, I saw people begging and almost crying to be released from service. Some had true hardships that had nothing to do with money (caring for a special needs child, for example) and some simply wanted to avoid the inconvenience and get back to their regularly scheduled daily lives, but most wanted out because they literally couldn’t afford to be there. While I was upset about the amount of money I was losing that day, only a very lengthy trial would be a true hardship for me because I can afford to miss one or two days. I have savings and, if need be, I can stay up late at night to make up the work I’m missing. Most don’t have that option. Those that couldn’t get out spent the day angry and surly.
Is this the way we really want our court system to function? Do we want our juries composed of people who are angry and resentful at having to serve? Do we want jury boxes full of people who can’t give the case their full attention because they’re wondering how they’re going to pay their bills now that they’re missing work? If you were on trial for something, would you be comforted by the fact that those twelve jurors in the box are looking at you as the reason they can’t be at work, making the money the need to feed their families? Would you want your case decided by people who are only there because they’ll be thrown in jail if they leave? By people who are exhausted because, after leaving the courthouse, they worked the late shift so they could be paid? I don’t think so. I’d much rather have a jury of engaged people who want to be there and who are rested and refreshed.
Jury duty is a huge responsibility and one we should all take seriously. The problem is that it doesn’t seem that the state values our contribution very much. For something that is such a large responsibility, literally life and death in some cases, you would think that the compensation would be commensurate. If you’re deciding someone’s fate, isn’t that worth at least the same amount as flipping a burger at McDonald’s? At the very least, just duty should pay minimum wage and (ideally) mileage. I would argue that it’s worth much more than that, though. However, minimum wage is at least a starting point and far better than what’s offered today.
Perhaps if jury duty paid a decent wage, people would be excited to serve. They would see it as the honor and responsibility it was intended to be, rather than an inconvenience that must be suffered. They would be engaged in the case rather than worrying about making ends meet. There might be less lying to get out of jury duty, and less abuse of court employees. Defendants could feel confident that their fate was in the hands of people who were really listening, rather than those who felt trapped.
I understand that states must work within limited budgets, but it seems to me that paying adequately for a responsibility of this magnitude justifies cutting down wasteful government spending in order to free up more money for the jury pool. (For example, did the DOT people who came to repair our road last week really have to leave their truck idling for an hour and a half while they did the work? The gas they wasted was ridiculous.) Jury duty is a responsibility and a jury that is engaged, awake and capable of rendering an informed verdict is our right as citizens. The current jury pay scale honors neither of these precepts.
Image courtesy of beavela