In early October, I opened one of my few non-bills, non-advertisement pieces of mail and wondered why the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General was writing to me. I did a quick memory scan in case I had forgotten some important legal matter, but nothing came to mind. Read the letter.
I had been summoned to appear for Jury duty in the latter part of November. I must admit I was excited. I'm one of the few people I know who had been waiting to be called on to do this civic duty. I looked forward to it. Cleared my schedule for the week I was to appear and prayed that I'd be chosen, but only for a case that would fall within this week that I'd made available. Other pressing obligations called for the weeks following.
On arriving to the designated room, I did a quick scan. It looked like Toronto had been summoned. A quick count showed more women than men; more Whites (not surprising); quite a few Asians (east and southeast); a smattering of south Asians and Blacks. What was wrong with this picture? There were only four Black men out of more than two hundred potential jurors. How was that possible in a city like Toronto?
As the morning of the first day began Court staff addressed the group. The weeding out began. Some opportunities to select oneself out- illness, undue hardship, full-time students all get a pass. But the courts also weeded: Only ‘full citizens' were allowed to be jurors. I wondered about the “full” not being able to imagine what the alternate could be- a half a citizen? How did one become that?
But more important I wondered how as a society we're able to square the fact that in the court system we're supposed to be judged by a jury of our peers, yet thousands of city residents are screened out of the process. Is a non-citizen charged with a crime or involved in a civic case getting a fair shake when his or her peers (other non-citizens) are not allowed to be part of the process? And what is it about this legal definition (because that's what it is since no test to prove attributes of good citizenship-no matter what that would look like- was given) of citizenship that makes one a better judge of facts presented in a case?
By day three, after having witnessed the process of jury selection (I got a greater appreciation for the importance of surfacing race in jury selection) this question of who gets to be a juror became even more concerning. I began to think of the correlation between jury qualification and who gets to vote in our society. The same questions arise there. Why aren't those who are resident in Toronto allowed to vote in municipal elections? Why do we who are concerned about this have to jump through political and legal hoops to prove that extending the municipal franchise to permanent residents (and some would legitimately argue it should be to all residents) is the democratic way. As Nathalie Des Rosiers of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says, in a democracy we should have to come up with reasons why folks should be excluded from the voting process.
As I walked from courtroom to jury lounge I couldn't help but notice the disproportionate number of Black families present in the courthouse. And while the cases my panel was brought into was fairly mixed in terms of the race of the accused, it didn't take much to realize that young Black men populated many of the other courts that I walked by.
Coincidentally, this is the same day that the report of the Correctional Investigator for Canada, Howard Sapers was getting much media play. The report puts in black and white what many of us engaged in social justice work already know. Black men and Aboriginal women are over-represented in our prisons and jails compared to their numbers in the general population.
This year's report of the Correctional Investigator featured a special section on Black inmates. It showed that there was an 90% increase of incarceration of Blacks in a decade. That Black men were more likely to be in isolation, had higher prison unemployment rates (!), have less opportunity at jobs where a skill can be learned and had less chances at early parole although their recidivism rate is lower than that of other groups. Mr. Sapers said that he could not call this overt racism, but he believed we were seeing “the impact of covert discrimination”. But discrimination based on race is racism: Systemic and otherwise.
The report also noted that almost 50% of Black inmates were Canadian born. This means the other half are immigrants (or refugees or without full status). What are the implications for them given that their peers (non- citizens like them) could not sit on juries that heard their cases? Am I stretching here? Maybe. But there are serious questions within our criminal justice and other political and legal systems that must be answered.
The women and men I met and observed during my week of jury duty all took this civic duty seriously. I believe they all wanted to be fair and impartial. But as I noted in one case involving a young Black man, when the question “this case involves a Black person. Can you judge this case without bias, or partiality?” Quite a few who weren't Black said “No.” For this honesty, I'm thankful. I guess.