By Lauren Smith
ALAMEDA COUNTY – Judges are once again attempting to change local court rules to make it so jurors from anywhere in the county can be called to serve on misdemeanor criminal trials—a move opposed by public defenders.
Currently, the rules state that courts can only call jurors from “geographical subpanels” near where a misdemeanor jury trial occurs. In Alameda County, there are no subpanels for felony cases, meaning jurors can be called from anywhere throughout the county.
In 2018, judges tried to abolish misdemeanor jury trials, but it failed due to “outcry from activists and members of the public.”
But because of the pandemic, judges temporarily suspended these subpanels, and are now they’re trying to make this change permanent. If this change becomes permanent, it would force potential jurors to spend an hour driving, or two hours on public transportation, to get to the courthouse.
Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods is opposed to the change, noting, “It’s troubling judges are trying to sneak through this change in the middle of the pandemic, when people have less confidence in public transportation, and many are stuck at home without childcare.
“Juror service is hard enough because so many employers don’t pay. They should make it easier instead of harder,” Woods continued.
In addition, this change “would make it more likely people accused of crimes will be convicted at trial,” said the PD, arguing juries should consist of the defendants’ “peers.” However, if the jurors’ lives are different from the people on trial, they will be less likely to relate to them and their situation, therefore, the jury is more likely to return a guilty verdict.
“We already have a hard time getting people from Oakland to sit on our juries,” Woods said. “This is going to make that worse. This is going to perpetuate the systemic racism that makes it hard for us to keep Black and brown people on our juries.”
Currently, Governor Newsom has two items on his desk: AB 3070, a bill making it more difficult for prosecutors to use “peremptory challenges” to remove people of color from being jurors, and SB 592, a bill that adds anybody who files state taxes to the list of potential jurors. Newsom has until September 30 to sign or veto these bills.
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