Jury duty is one of the most meaningful and direct opportunities for civic engagement. However, due to financial constraints, many prospective jurors — often those from the neighborhoods most affected by crime and the criminal legal system — are deprived of this opportunity to serve.
Diverse juries are essential to the fair delivery of justice. Given the increasing income inequality across the U.S. and the widening racial and economic disparities of the criminal legal system, one critical way to increase access to justice is to ensure that jury pools mirror their community's diverse populations by removing economic barriers to serving.
In March 2022, the city and county of San Francisco and the San Francisco County Superior Court launched a pilot program, Be The Jury, to raise juror compensation for low- to moderate-income jurors from $15 to $100 per day.
The goal of the program was to test whether increased compensation allows more people to complete their civic duty without financial hardship and whether it improves the economic and racial diversity of San Francisco juries.
One year after the launch of the program, an evaluation found that the program successfully increased participation among people of color and residents with lower average incomes, enabling juries to better — and more fairly — reflect San Francisco's economic and racial diversity.
With these results in mind, jurisdictions across the U.S. might consider implementing a similar program to increase juror compensation.
This article discusses how programs like this can increase access to justice, as well as the key considerations and challenges in establishing this kind of program in other jurisdictions.
Background and Context
California, like many states, requires employers to provide time off for employees who are summoned to jury duty. While time off work is guaranteed, California law does not require employers to pay employees who serve on a jury.
In California, if a juror's employer does not cover their salary, jurors earn nothing on their first day of service and $15 per day after that.
Since jury pay was enacted in the 1950s, the stipend has only been increased once, in 2000.
Moreover, despite having one of the highest costs of living, California pays its jurors less than average compared to other states.
Because many low-income families cannot afford to take days off work and forfeit days or weeks of their income, many low-income workers, self-employed workers or unemployed individuals file a claim of financial hardship and are excused from jury service.
As a result, jury pools tend to be composed of people who can afford to serve unpaid or who have employers that will pay them while they are serving.
In San Francisco, both prosecutors and defense attorneys observed that jury pools were becoming whiter, wealthier and unrepresentative of the diversity of the city.
Be The Jury Pilot Program
The Financial Justice Project in the San Francisco Treasurer's Office, along with justice partners in the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, San Francisco District Attorney's Office, Bar Association of San Francisco and the San Francisco Superior Court, came together to see how they might alleviate financial hardships for prospective jurors and increase the economic and racial diversity of jury pools.
The result of this collaboration was the Be The Jury pilot program, which launched in March 2022. Be The Jury compensates low- to moderate-income jurors $100 per day for jury service in criminal trials in San Francisco.
Jurors are eligible if their household income is less than 80% of the area median income — which was $74,600 for a single person and $106,550 for a household of four in 2021 — and if they meet one of the following criteria: (1) their employer does not compensate for jury service, (2) their employer does not compensate for the estimated duration of jury service, (3) they are self-employed or (4) they are unemployed.
One-Year Evaluation Findings
A one-year evaluation of the program, released in August, found that:
- The program removed financial barriers for an overwhelming majority of participants. Indeed, 84% of program participants said the $100 per day compensation allowed them to serve as jurors.
- The program increased the participation of low-income individuals in jury pools. The median household income for participants was $38,000, far below San Francisco's median household income of $121,826.
- Program participants reflected the racial diversity of San Francisco. The racial makeup of participants was nearly identical to the racial makeup of San Francisco's population.
Interviews and survey responses from participating jurors found that the program helped remove financial barriers, motivated participants to change their attitude toward jury service and the judicial system, and allowed them to be more engaged during jury duty.
As of September, over 1,100 San Franciscans have participated in the program. Program partners are currently working to make the program permanent, given the positive results of the program's evaluation.
Recommendations for Other Jurisdictions
The Be The Jury Program demonstrates that increased juror compensation can foster juries that are more racially and economically diverse. So how can other counties in California, as well as other jurisdictions across the country, implement similar programs to ensure that everyone can have access to a jury of their peers?
Collaboration among stakeholders is key.
Our offices — the San Francisco Treasurer's Office, the District Attorney's Office and the Public Defender's Office — along with the San Francisco Bar Association and San Francisco Superior Court, came together to develop this program.
Other jurisdictions should likewise consider bringing together key stakeholders of their local criminal justice system, including representatives from the prosecutor's office, public defender's office, other defense attorneys and the trial courts to help design and shape the most effective program.
This collaboration is important to ensure that all stakeholders in the courtroom are supportive and buy into the program.
Ensure the program is easy for the courts to administer and for people to apply to.
As jurisdictions develop such programs, it is essential to ensure that the process is simple, quick and easy to understand for prospective jurors, and that the program is easy for the courts to administer and build into their existing processes.
Working groups should work closely with court staff to understand current processes for jurors when they assemble.
In San Francisco's program, when jurors report to the courthouse, they complete a short application under penalty of perjury and self-attest that they meet the eligibility criteria, including that their annual income level falls below 80% of the area median income. Research in court settings shows that self-attestation of income is highly accurate.
A judge reviews the application and lets jurors know whether they are eligible the same day.
Other jurisdictions might consider adopting similar applications, including criteria that capture household income and whether a prospective juror's employer compensates for jury service.
Jurisdictions should also consider using self-attestation in the application and not require documentation that can be burdensome both for people to produce and for the program to review.
It's also important for judges to expeditiously review and accept or reject applications, so that prospective jurors know whether they will be approved and able to serve.
Consider funding avenues.
The vast majority of the funds to support the Be The Jury Program go directly to jurors in the form of stipends. The only other ongoing cost is for materials.
The San Francisco Superior Court did not require any additional funding for implementation. The initial funding for Be The Jury was raised from philanthropic sources by the Financial Justice Project in the Treasurer's Office.
Other jurisdictions could emulate this model by seeking philanthropic funds to pilot a program, and if proven successful, could advocate for local or state funds to continue the program more permanently.
It's worth noting that the San Francisco program may even lead to cost savings for the court system. The California Judicial Council estimates that expanding Be The Jury statewide could result in cost savings because increased compensation may incentivize juror participation, so juries would be filled more quickly — reducing the overall number of jurors who need to be called and compensated to secure enough jurors to fill a jury.
Other states could likewise see net cost savings, and conducting this kind of forward-looking economic analysis may help to advocate for general funds to support a similar program.
Conduct outreach and public awareness campaigns.
Programs like Be The Jury can only be successful if eligible people are aware of them. Jurisdictions must work to ensure that all potential jurors hear about these programs multiple times, and in different ways — both before a juror reaches the courtroom and during their time there.
Other jurisdictions might think about placing information about the program directly on the juror summons so that prospective jurors see the opportunity and reconsider their ability to serve without a financial hardship.
Jurisdictions could also disseminate information through court websites, as well as through a juror hotline where prospective jurors can hear a recording about the program.
Information should be clear and easy to navigate, giving jurors a clear understanding of the program's eligibility criteria and how they can apply.
Once jurors report to the courtroom, jurisdictions might consider hanging large informational posters about the program in jury waiting rooms and playing an informational video.
Court staff should also be trained to describe the program and to answer any potential questions from jurors.
Finally, jurisdictions might consider broader outreach campaigns in the community about jury service. This might include hanging posters in community centers, distributing flyers and using social media.
In San Francisco, the Golden State Warriors conducted public service announcements about the Be The Jury program and the importance of serving jury duty on social media.
Given the success of the Be The Jury program in San Francisco, we encourage other jurisdictions to consider increasing juror compensation as a way to increase access to justice. Our offices are open to sharing the program materials and protocols that we have developed with other jurisdictions.
José Cisneros is the treasurer for the city and county of San Francisco.
Brooke Jenkins is the San Francisco District Attorney.
Mano Raju is the San Francisco Public Defender.
Disclosure: As leaders of the San Francisco Treasurer's Office, District Attorney's Office, and Public Defender's Office, respectively, Cisneros, Jenkins and Raju oversaw the launch and implementation of the Be the Jury Project.
"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email email@example.com.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
 The Be The Jury Pilot Program was authorized by California Assembly Bill 1452 (D-Ting) and was initially funded with philanthropic funds raised by The Financial Justice Project. It continues today.
 One Be The Jury participant said, "Being able to serve made me feel more connected to my community and involved in democracy. I learned so much about the justice system."
 In the 2023 California State legislative session, the program partners co-sponsored AB 881: Be The Jury CA (D-Ting). AB 881 would have expanded the Be The Jury program to four other California counties, representing urban and rural diversity. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom.
 California Senate Appropriations Analysis of AB 881, June 30, 2023.