The percentage of people who show up for jury duty in Harris County is already low, but is even lower in minority communities, where only between five and seven percent of those summoned show-up for service. The Houston Bar Association is trying to change that by reaching out to young people who are just now eligible to serve as jurors.
In room 102 at Madison High School on the city’s southwest side, Houston Bar Association President and local attorney Randy Sorrels isn’t talking to a jury like he normally does, but is instead trying to convince students that jury duty is a crucial part of the nation’s judicial system.
The classroom is full of minority students who are or will soon be part of the eligible jury pool in Harris County. Sorrels is one of a number of local attorneys and judges are visiting 24 high schools across the city, spreading the word. “There are statistically more Hispanics and African-Americans that are charged with crimes, and if you look at the statistics, the people showing up for jury service are mostly whites. I do believe that our jury system works and I think a white and an African-American person can both be equally fair, but it’s important and our founders of our constitution really wanted a cross-section of the community to be involved in this process,” he says.
Latasha McDade is a recent law school graduate and an attorney for ExxonMobil. As an African-American, she’s hoping her influence will help students at Madison realize how important jury service is. “A lot of people don’t know or don’t understand the importance of being on a jury. Once again, you think about a pool of 5 million people that are chosen for jury duty in the United States of America and you kind of think my particular vote on a jury really doesn’t matter. But I think if you look at the aggregate effect it’s important for all of us to be represented on juries so that a jury is diverse and impartial,” she says.
The new program will reach more than 4,000 high school seniors this fall, including Madison senior Elizabeth Gardner, who thinks she might want to go to law school some day. “If I was being judged by a jury, I wouldn’t want 12 people who are Hispanic or Caucasian when I’m an African-American judging me. If they make the wrong decision, then I would feel it was because of my race. But when I would have an equal amount of everyone, I would think that was better because I would think that I had a fair trial,” she says.
Only about 20 percent of those called for jury duty in Harris County show up. Ignoring a jury summons is a crime, but is rarely prosecuted.