A jury of your peers? Why SF has more black people in jail than in juries 

click to enlarge A little more than half of the County Jail population is black, while The City’s population is about 6 percent black. - S.F. EXAMINER ILLUSTRATION
  • S.F. Examiner illustration
  • A little more than half of the County Jail population is black, while The City’s population is about 6 percent black.

It is no secret that San Francisco's black population has been in steep decline in recent years. Whatever the cause, it is also no secret that the cost of living has spiked and a whiter, more affluent populace has increasingly made The City home.

This demographic shift is also having a troubling effect in the courtroom, as black residents have all but disappeared from jury pools.

"It's been that way for the last six or seven years," Deputy Public Defender Steve Olmo said of the absence of black jurors.

Over the past two decades, famously diverse San Francisco's black population has dropped by more than 35 percent from about 78,000 in 1990 to a little more than 50,000 in 2013.

That exodus is partly to blame for a trend that criminal lawyers interviewed by The San Francisco Examiner are finding: few if any black people are in the juries that face mostly black clients.

A TROUBLING TREND

In mid-December, Deputy Public Defender Alexandra Pray was representing a 32-year-old black man facing domestic violence charges. In the jury pool, a common issue emerged: There were no black residents.

After the trial, she asked them how they felt about that fact and they told her that "made them question whether ... [it was a] trial with a jury of his peers."

Of the 22 defendants Pray represented in the past year and a half, few jurors were black, yet many of those defendants were.

"The more rare occasion is when I have a black juror," she said.

Her client was convicted of the charges.

IN JAILS BUT NOT JURIES

There are no hard numbers available on the race breakdown of San Francisco juries. But the race breakdown of the County Jail population offers an indication of who those juries are judging.

On Jan. 26, for instance, the County Jail's population stood at 1,164 inmates, with 596 of them being black people.

This steep percentage stands in stark contrast to demographic decline in The City as a whole.

San Francisco's black population in 1990 was 78,931, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2010, it had declined by 35.7 percent to 50,768, comprising just 6.3 percent of The City's population of 805,235. And by 2013, the Census Bureau estimated the black population had declined again to 50,246.

The demographics speak for themselves. But there are other contributing factors to the low number of black people in jury pools, said Public Defender Jeff Adachi. A high percentage of the black population are convicted felons — about 25 percent of adult males on average, Adachi said — and the numbers of registered voters and driver's-license holders are low.

These factors are important, he said, because of the nature of jury selection.

It is the job of the courts to call juries, and they do this using DMV records and voter rolls.

"The court receives names and addresses of residents of the city and county of San Francisco from the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Elections. These are the same type of lists utilized by every other county in the state as well as the U.S. District Court," said Ann Donlan, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Superior Court. "We randomly select potential jurors from those lists to issue summonses. The jury reflects The City's demographics of registered voters and licensed drivers."

Some judges have urged communities of color to participate more, she said, adding that the system is "inclusive, fair and representative of the demographics of our city."

But that was not the finding of the Judicial Council, which governs the state's courts, the last time it took a close look at the matter.

The Judicial Council's Advisory Committee on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts last issued a report in 1997, yet it is still relevant.

"Juror lists compiled from voter and Department of Motor Vehicles lists only may not be representative. Other sources should be considered to augment the jury pool," said the report, which also found that many minority groups believe that few if any people like them are in juries and that white jurors are prejudiced against minorities.

Besides this report, it is unclear what system, if any, has been put into place to rectify these shortcomings.

LACK OF REPRESENTATION

Nevertheless, the makeup of juries impacts the outcome of trials.

A study in Florida, cited by Adachi and published in the Oxford Journal, found that all-white juries are 15 percent more likely to convict a black defendant and that one black juror reduces that percentage to zero.

"When juries are homogeneous ... that's not a good thing," Adachi said.

Even jurors have called out this lack of representation among black people, Adachi said. In two recent trials with black defendants, "What caught our attention was that in both cases, one of the jurors raised their hands and said, 'I notice there's not an African-American here,'" Adachi said.

Such simple logic does not sit well with Justine Cephus, an assistant district attorney in San Francisco.

"It's not that I'm not worried ... it's just that I don't think the question can be posed so simply," said Cephus, who does not disagree with the fact that there are few black jurors.

But just using race as criteria for a fair jury pool ignores a lot of factors like class, education and gender.

"A jury of your peers is not 12 21-year-old black men," she said, referencing a recent case involving a 21-year-old black defendant. "It's supposed to be a cross section of the community."

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Bio:
Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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