Some Californians could soon be paid far more for jury duty.
A bill moving through the State Legislature would give certain jurors $100 a day for serving on a criminal trial jury, a big jump from the current daily rate of $15. If the legislation passes, jurors will be eligible for the higher stipends in Los Angeles, Alameda, Kern, Monterey and San Francisco Counties through 2025.
The proposal was inspired by a pilot program in San Francisco that has increased the racial and economic diversity of the county’s jury pools by providing $100 daily payments to low- and moderate-income jurors. In California, employers are required to give workers days off to complete jury duty, but they don’t have to pay employees’ wages.
In San Francisco, more than a third of residents say that serving on a jury poses an economic burden, according to city officials. So many lower-income jurors were being excused for financial hardship that juries were becoming increasingly wealthy and white, because of the correlation between income inequality and race, said Assemblyman Phil Ting, who sponsored the new legislation. That further slanted the criminal justice system against people of color, he said.
During one criminal trial observed by San Francisco’s public defender’s office, people of color made up roughly 50 percent of the initial pool of jurors. After jurors were excused for financial hardship, the composition of the jury pool became 39 percent people of color and 61 percent white people.
“We’re always promised a jury of our peers,” Ting, who represents San Francisco, told me. “Most folks in criminal court, a lot of them are middle to low income. They really come from very modest means. But that’s not who serves on juries.”
The city began its program in March 2022, offering $100 to anyone who made less than 80 percent of the local median income — that is, less than $74,600 for a single person and $106,550 for a household of four — or was unemployed, self-employed or employed by a company that didn’t compensate for jury service.
In the first year of the program, 495 people participated, 60 percent of whom were people of color, said Anne Stuhldreher, the director of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, which oversees the program. Participants’ average annual income was $38,000, and the vast majority of them said they could not have served without the extra money.
The public defender in Alameda County, Brendon Woods, told The San Francisco Standard that he supported the bill, and he recounted a recent case in which a Black client faced a jury with no Black people on it. He said it reminded him of when only white men were allowed to serve on juries.
“Oakland does not have a shortage of Black people,” he told the news outlet. “But we do have a shortage of Black people when it comes to those serving as jurors.”
Soumya Karlamangla is a reporter with the New York Times.