By Anna Gustafson
Gov. David Paterson signed into law an act sponsored by state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) designed to bring more minorities to jury pools that officials said have not always represented a fair cross-section of the community.
The Jury Pool Fair Representation Act, which received the go-ahead from the governor last week, requires government officials to record demographic data — including race, ethnicity, age and gender — of everyone who shows up for jury duty to determine how accurately the juries represent their surrounding communities.
“Every New Yorker is entitled to a jury of their peers, but we can’t have fair juries unless we have fair jury pools,” Lancman said. “This law is the first step to ensuring that New York’s juries look like New York’s people.”
The law, also sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), followed a report from Citizen Action-New York several years ago that found minorities are severely under-represented in civil jury pools in New York County.
Citizen Action, an advocacy group, sent representatives to document more than 12,000 juror appearances and label each individual as white, black, Asian or other and record whether they were Hispanic or non-Hispanic. From this research, the group found Hispanics were under-represented, while there was a larger percentage of whites than in the surrounding community.
Many witnesses at an Assembly hearing on this bill in the spring of 2009 echoed the report’s findings.
“One of the many strengths of our judicial system is the option of a trial by a jury of our peers,” Paterson said. “This legislation will help provide us with the information necessary to improve jury representation and help us better realize our goals of a fair and equitable court system.”
The Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to low-income New Yorkers, threw its support behind the legislation, as did the New York Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“We at The Legal Aid Society confront the issues of juror bias and the fairness of trials on an ongoing basis,” Legal Aid Attorney-in-Chief Steven Banks wrote in a letter to the governor. “We believe that this law will lead to a widening of the pool from which eligible jurors are drawn and will ultimately help diversify the participation of the community in the trial process and enhance confidence in its fairness for those exercising their right to trial by jury.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.