The Boston Review recently ran an article by political scientist Albert Dzur on the jury. It appeared on July 22, 2013, and was called “Twelve Absent Men.”
Until the early 20th century, the jury was the standard way Americans handled criminal cases, but today we operate largely without it. It has been supplanted by plea agreements, settlements, summary judgments, and other non-trial forums that are usually more efficient and cost-effective in the short term. In addition to cost and efficiency, justice officials worry about juror competence in the face of scientific and technical evidence and expert testimony, further diminishing the opportunity for everyday people to serve.
Nothing in the article should startle regular readers of this blog, but it was depressing to read how often the American criminal justice system manages to evade resort to juries. There is also a brief discussion of citizen juries.
Citizens’ juries assemble representative groups of lay citizens to deliberate about policy problems, normally quite concrete and specific, often in highly divisive areas such as urban planning and environmental protection. The jurors draw on expert analysis, deliberate together, and eventually issue a report that recommends a course of action for public authorities.
In Oregon, for example, citizens’ juries have been organized to evaluate a number of ballot measures, such as one proposing mandatory minimum sentences for certain repeat DUI and sex offenders and another permitting the distribution of medical marijuana. The result of the five-day-long sessions involving randomly selected and demographically adjusted groups of 24 citizens is a set of key findings, which are published in a “citizens’ statement” included in the official Oregon voters’ pamphlet.