The People vs. Inefficiency

1st May, 2013 No Comments Blog

I started writing this blog from the hallway outside a courtroom at 100 Centre Street in Manhattan, on lunch break on the first day of a criminal trial for which I was selected as a juror. As any of you who have served on a jury, or have watched CSI, Law & Order, or Night Court (yes, I went there), know, I could not discuss the case with anyone other than my fellow jurors until its conclusion. I presume that blogging constitutes discussion, so I am posting this after the recent conclusion of the trial…

This is my second day at the courthouse. Yesterday, 9:00AM to 3:30PM, was given to the jury selection for my case. I am sure I am not the first to observe that much of the 6.5 hours devoted to that process were, from the prospective juror’s perspective, wasted.  As a former consultant, trained engineer, and tech nut, I can’t help but make observations on some of the process and suggest improvements.  I am not saying that any of these innovations would make good products, much less companies, but can’t resist:

1. Identification: Most of the first hour of the day was given to arrival and the completion of a simple form containing basic identifying information on each juror. This process eliminated a handful of people from potential selection (e.g. those who do not speak English).  Most of this process could be done online with a simple form.  Jurors could then print a bar-coded ticket or other access indicator and gain admission to the courthouse with that item and I.D.

2. Waiting part 1:  We waited nearly an hour while the clerks gathered information from judges about how many jurors they would need.  This could be accomplished with secure web apps I’m sure; the judge could input his or her needs and kick off the selection process (see below).

3. Culling:  The clerks called us all back into a large room to select people for jury questioning.  They did so by placing our juror cards in a large drum, rotating, then selecting cards from the drum (!).  This could also be done before anyone arrives using a random number generator.

4. Waiting part 2:  I have no idea why we waited again (after being selected), but we did, before entering a courtroom.

5. Questioning:  All prospective jurors answered the same basic set of questions aloud in front of counsel and the judge: name, family situation, employment, home neighborhood, etc. This also could have been accomplished online. Not only would it have been more efficient, it would have prevented me from announcing details about myself to a room full of strangers. The second part of questioning – specific questions from each counsel to selected prospective jurors – could also have been done online (via secure message or through Skype), but was the first thing we did (after 3 hours in the courthouse) that arguably required our physical presence.

6. Selection (waiting part 3):  Again, we waited while counsel selected jurors.  Goodbye another hour.

7. Oath:  Back into the courtroom for the selection of the jurors and oath.  Digital signatures could do the trick here, but no biggee.

And that’s just selection (day one).

I was, unfortunately for my schedule, selected to serve.  The trial was a game of hurry up and wait.  Court is in session from 9:30 to 4:30 with an hour break for lunch.  We were told these hours were kept due to budgetary constraints.  With all the sidebars and waiting for witnesses to show up, we probably had 3-4 hours per day of productive courtroom time.  This is a harder problem to fix, but could be minimized with better communication with the jury.  We never knew how long we had to wait; if we had, I might have gotten more work done in our breaks.  Thank goodness we were not sequestered.

At the conclusion of arguments and the judge’s instructions, the jury was sent to a conference room to deliberate.  In our case, we had a number of questions about the letter of the law concerning the charges against the defendant and wanted to review some of the evidence in the trial.  The method by which we were required to request these items was by handwritten note to the judge that the bailiff took from us and delivered (!).  Not surprisingly, this process was wildly inefficient.  Without a written transcript of the proceedings, for example, we asked to review some of the testimony, which was only available to us in the form of a courtroom reading by a court reporter.  We could not ask her to repeat anything or to read a bit more than the section the judge thought we wanted to hear; not without another note from the jury room.  It seems to me that there should be a secure, real-time communication channel from the jury foreperson to the judge instead of handwritten notes passed through the bailiff.  Recording such questions for the record ceased to be challenging many years ago.

You might brush off my complaints as simply that; complaints.  I admit I am not a patient person.  On the other hand, I submit that having 15 people (12 jurors plus alternates) in trial, multiplied by all the trials underway in these United States, constitutes an unacceptable and senseless drag on our economy.  For our small criminal trial of five days, 72 workdays were lost, just for the jury (not counting witnesses, etc.).

Let me be sure to note that I realize I have a very narrow window on the judicial process, not having been trained in the law or law enforcement and never having previously served on a jury.  Also, while I complain about the inefficiency of the system, it did seem to work in this trial from a due process perspective:  justice, in my opinion, was served.  More accurately, justice was served with respect to the defendant and prosecution.  As for the judicial use of time, well, that’s another matter.

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