URBANA — A committee of citizens and public officials associated with the Champaign County court system is making progress educating minorities about the need to serve on juries, but they know there's more to do.
"Education, education, education," Aaron Ammons, chairman of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Jury Service, told members of the League of Women Voters on Thursday.
Ammons, an African-American who co-founded the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice, has been on the committee since its inception in 2009.
Besides meeting periodically to figure out how to get more minorities to answer the call to jury service, Ammons and other committee members have appeared on radio call-in shows and at community events that draw large numbers of African-Americans to talk about the importance of service.
Reports compiled for several years by court watchers from the League of Women Voters and University of Illinois law students have shown an underrepresentation of minorities on juries sitting in cases involving minority defendants.
The committee was formed to see if the numbers could be improved.
"The diverse jury doesn't mean just more people of color. It means greater depth in deliberation. You have different perspectives, different experiences," Ammons said, which hopefully leads to verdicts that are "more well-thought out."
Ammons counts as one of the committee's achievements the tweaking of the prospective juror questionnaire to get rid of the question about past criminal convictions, which he said may have scared some people from returning it.
"It's a (mistaken impression) that citizens with felony convictions can't serve. That's not true. If you have a conviction, you can serve," he said, adding that lawyers who select the jurors have the final say in who sits in judgment of their client.
Another major accomplishment of the committee which could have ramifications far beyond Champaign County is the inclusion in the jury pool of people who are receiving unemployment benefits from the state.
Currently, prospective jurors come from lists of registered voters, licensed drivers, those with state of Illinois IDs, and those with certificates of disability.
Committee member Jennifer Putman, who formerly served on the Champaign County Board for many years, worked closely with Champaign County Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum and Patricia Avery, former county board chairman and also a member of the jury committee, to get legislation passed that allows names from the Department of Employment Security to be added to the pool.
Sponsored in the House by state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, and in the Senate by Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, it cleared both houses without any opposition. It takes effect Jan. 1.
"The goal isn't to have unemployed people on juries," said Putman. "It's to have valid addresses (to mail questionnaires to potential jurors.) It's true that if you aren't working, you would be able to say yes to serving."
Ammons, Putman and other committee members agree that the $10-a-day pay for jury service in Champaign County likely keeps many from serving. Although employers may not fire or punish employees who choose to serve, there is nothing in the law that requires them to pay employees while they're on jury duty.
Putman said Jakobsson let the committee know there was no way a bill forcing employers to pay employees for jury service would fly in this economic climate.
Putman said the committee would like to have an "honor roll" of employers posted in the courthouse with the names of those companies that pay their employees who are on jury service.
But she said a comprehensive survey of county employers would need to be done. She asked for volunteers to conduct such a survey.