Jury Reform

This marks the fourth year of the court system's ongoing program of jury reform. As one of the first court systems in the nation to undertake a comprehensive review of its jury system, New York from the outset adopted three basic objectives: jury pools that are truly representative of the community; a system that operates effectively; and jury service that is a positive experience for the half-million citizens summoned each year.

Over the past four years, these basic goals have been translated into concrete improvements that jurors can see, feel and hear from the first day they report for service. Those summoned immediately notice that jury facilities are cleaner and better equipped for their comfort. They are greeted by staff who pride themselves on being responsive to citizen concerns. Thanks to new summoning methods and repeal of all automatic exemptions, there are many first-time jurors. Many of these are from occupations rarely seen in the jury room just a few years ago - doctors and lawyers, embalmers and prothetists, to name just a few. Other changes are also immediately apparent: new juror handbooks; an award-winning orientation video; increased juror compensation (raised from $15 to $40 per day); newsletters with the latest information on jury reform and other court initiatives; and a hotline (1-800-NYJUROR) for comments and complaints.

Additional improvements become evident as the day goes on. Those sent out for jury selection in civil cases find that this often-tedious process proceeds more quickly, as new rules have increased judicial oversight of the proceedings. Those selected for a criminal trial learn that due to recent legislation, they are less likely to be sequestered during deliberations.

At the end of the day, many of those who have not been selected for a jury will appreciate another improvement. Under the "one day/one trial" standard now in place in 58 of the 62 counties in the State, their service is complete. Unless they reside in Manhattan or the Bronx (where the demand for jurors requires a two-year summoning period), they should not receive another summons for at least four years. Hopefully, they will take the time to complete the juror exit questionnaire - yet another new improvement - before heading for the courthouse door.

The New York State jury program has also included a number of administrative and "back office" reforms that are not as obvious, but still contribute greatly to the improved functioning of the system. Technological improvements have included bar-coded juror questionnaires so that data can be easily scanned into the central computer system; automated follow-up mailings to non-responding citizens; annual updating of source lists and use of a national computerized change of address service to assure that the master jury roll remains current. "Juror utilization" workshops have been held for court personnel to seek ways to further reduce juror waiting time. A system of jury facilities coordinators has been developed so that in every courthouse, a designated staff person monitors cleaning and maintenance needs.

Clearly, progress has been made over the past four years. Yet much work remains to be done to build a jury system that lives up to its promise as a bulwark of our democracy. In the coming year, we will seek to maintain the momentum for reform through several initiatives including:

  • a first-ever statistical study of the criminal jury selection system to identify best judicial practices and needed legislative reforms;
  • the Grand Jury Project, a 33-member blue ribbon panel commissioned to scrutinize the grand jury system from the juror's point of view;
  • implementation of recent legislation mandating full credit for jury service in Town and Village Justice Courts;
  • initiatives to improve juror comprehension by clarifying standards on juror note-taking, allowing provision of written copies of jury instructions in civil cases and promoting the use of non-designated alternate jurors;
  • continuing "back office" improvements, including redesign of summons forms, new software to eliminate duplications from the master source list, pilot testing of attendance scanning in New York County and pilot testing of one-step summoning in Westchester County.

The court system encourages juror feedback as a means of measuring our progress and as a source of new ideas on how the system can be made better. For example, a recent letter from a juror suggesting that citizens who serve lengthy terms of service should be granted longer periods of disqualification from summoning has led to a legislative proposal that would do just that.

Jury service gives citizens a chance to participate - even more directly than when they vote - in the governing of their society. With continuing reform, the public will better see that the system works, works well, and that their participation is essential to this success.

A fuller description of New York State's jury reform efforts can be found in Jury Reform in New York State - A Second Progress Report on a Continuing Initiative (March 1998), available from the Office of Court Administration, 25 Beaver Street, New York, New York 10004 or on our website, http://ucs.ljx.com/ .