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Our View: Time for Minnesota courts to make diversity a priority

Our View editorial graphic
Our View
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Among all the methods one can employ to make a convincing argument, we'd usually rank “Consider this hypothetical scenario” among the least effective. Hypotheticals generally are unlikely – or even preposterous – and therefore easily dismissed.

But sometimes that very preposterousness is a valid point unto itself.

So, consider this hypothetical situation: You are white, and you are charged with several felonies. After the jury is seated, you look into the jury box and see six African-Americans, four Hispanics and two Native Americans.

Preposterous, right? Certainly not the “jury of your peers” that you are promised in the Sixth Amendment. Such a thing could never happen.

And it never does. Not to white people, anyway.

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But to people of color, there's nothing preposterous or hypothetical about facing a jury that doesn't include anyone of your race. It happens, and it happens a lot.

In Saturday's Post Bulletin, investigative reporter Molly Castle Work took an in-depth look at a problem that has plagued Minnesota's legal system for decades. Simply put, most criminal defendants here are people of color, yet juries are overwhelmingly white – sometimes entirely so.

Does such imbalance lead to justice denied? In many cases, yes. Multiple studies of jury racial imbalance across the nation have reached the same conclusion; namely, that all-white juries convict non-white defendants more often than white defendants. But, if a jury includes even one non-white member, the conviction rates for white and non-white defendants become almost identical.

The problem, in Minnesota at least, appears to be one of process. Pools of prospective jurors are created using voter registration records, driver's license data and state-issued ID cards. Non-white Minnesotans are less likely to vote or have a driver's license, which means the pool of possible jurors is racially skewed from the start.

Things only get worse from there. The state is less likely to have a current address for non-white potential jurors, which means many summonses aren't delivered – or arrive late. The documents themselves also can be confusing and intimidating to almost anyone, but that's especially true for people whose first language isn't English.

And finally, for those non-white would-be jurors who defy the odds and actually make it to the courtroom for jury selection, they are more likely to be excused due to financial hardship or dismissed via a prosecutor's “peremptory challenge.”

So, when all is said and done, non-white defendants too often look at an all-white jury and feel pressured to take whatever plea deal they can get, rather than face an 81 percent likelihood of conviction.

In 1993, the Minnesota Supreme Court recommended 11 specific solutions to address this ongoing miscarriage of justice, including expanded jury pools, better juror pay and even providing free daycare, but as of 2019, most of those solutions had not been attempted, let alone brought to full fruition. And, while judges and jury commissioners technically have the power to intervene when a jury pool is obviously imbalanced, they almost never do so – in part because they lack clear guidance as to what they can do and when they can do it.

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From a strictly legal perspective, this ongoing failure to act could (and probably should) have serious consequences. Racial disparity on a jury is a valid argument for appealing a conviction, and perhaps that's the very wakeup call our system needs. If Minnesota's appeals courts begin tossing convictions due to jury racial disparity and ordering expensive, time-consuming re-trials, perhaps we will get serious about seating juries that better reflect our state's increasing diversity.

But it shouldn't come to that. The Minnesota Supreme Court has laid out an improvement plan, and it's time to follow it. Pay jurors a fair wage for a day's work. Use every possible resource to get a true cross-section of the population into jury pools. Demystify the paperwork. Don't automatically disqualify potential jurors who are on probation or have a criminal history. Give judges greater authority to ensure some level of diversity in juries.

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