Passes Ellis Legislation to Boost Jury Pay Approved by House Committee
(Austin)//The House Committee on the Judiciary today passed legislation by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) to boost jury pay. The legislation is being sponsored and shepherded through the House by Judiciary Chairman Will Hartnett (R-Dallas).
The low compensation rate is making it more difficult for counties to attract jurors, and reducing diversity in the jury box. Senate Bill 1704 would provide a pay raise for Texas juries for the first time since 1954, when the current rate of $6 a day was established. It would increase compensation to $40 a day by charging an additional $4 fee on criminal convictions.
"Often times, the only things black or brown in the courtroom is the judge's robe, the bench and, all too often, the defendant," said Senator Ellis. "In a minority-majority state, it is imperative that we ensure our juries are more reflective of the overall population."
Low income and minority Texans are currently drastically underrepresented on juries at levels that experts warn jeopardize the Constitutional legitimacy of many convictions. Latinos, for example, compromise more than 30% of the population of Dallas and Harris counties, but make up only 10% of the jury venires.
"If you did not receive a pay raise in 50 years, you'd walk off the job too," said Ellis. "That's what is happening now. As a result, we are flirting with having our court system being ruled unconstitutional because the jury box is not representative of Texas."
The primary reason cited for this low level of jury participation, is the dismal level at which Texas compensates jurors. At $6 a day, Texas ranks dead last in the nation in what we pay our jurors; at 0 percent, Texas also ranks dead last when it comes to helping counties foot the bill for juror pay. In contrast, many states require that jurors be paid at least $50/day and contribute 100% of the funds to help their counties pay for jurors.
Studies have shown that when financial barriers to jury participation are decreased, participation drastically increases. In 1999, El Paso County increased jury pay to $40 a day which helped their jury show-up rate more than double. When the State of New York increased jury pay, their jury participation more than tripled.
"Hard working Texans who struggle to earn a living wage, can't afford to miss an entire day of work for $6," said Ellis. "Six dollars rarely even covers the cost of parking at the courthouse. We can improve justice and dramatically improve diversity by requiring criminals pay $4 more."