The Price of Freedom

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to d0 my civic duty of jury service and it got me thinking about all the costs involved in this process. Previously my experience with jury service had been quite limited. Each time I was called in I sat around for 30 - 180 minutes and then was ultimately dismissed without any need for my service. This time I still didn't wind up sitting on a jury but I did come close, which gave me my greatest insight into the entire process to date.

I showed up at the courthouse at 8:30 AM and waited around with about 100 other potential jurors until the judge showed up to brief us at 9. We spent about an hour going through jury orientation/training and then we waited around for our names to be called for a specific courtroom. Waiting was not onerous at all; the seats were comfortable and the courthouse offered free WiFi.

Meanwhile upstairs each courtroom held 30 - 50 accused citizens. Each defendant talked to the judge and plead "guilty," "not guilty", or "no contest." For those who plead "guilty" or "no contest" they settled immediately there with court administrators. Those who plead "not guilty" had the right to a fair and speedy trial--which is where the jurors come in.

Once a courtroom processed all of the non-trial defendants, they began the jury selection process for the trials. Down in the jury room the administrator periodically called out 14 random names of potential jurors; these formed a single group which was then marched upstairs to a single courtroom. There a jury of six jurors was selected for each case and the trials were held. Because this was municipal court (traffic tickets and such), all trials were guaranteed to end the same day.

I spent the morning working on my laptop and my name was never called. There was a lunch break and then my name was called in the early afternoon--how exciting! In the courtroom, each juror introduced himself out loud (name, profession, area of town inhabited) and then underwent voir dire. There wasn't too much biting examination, just general questions about prejudices, biases, and understanding of the judicial process. Frankly I don't think the lawyers were as concerned about selecting a jury as they were about pre-seeding all of the potential jurors with the main arguments of their cases. I was not one of the six selected for that jury so I returned to the jury room downstairs. After another hour or so I was paid $6 for my time and released. $6--jury service sure pays better than cleantech entrepreneurship!

While I was in the courtroom for the jury selection process, I was struck by how much the whole ordeal was costing. Following is a very crude back-of-the-envelope estimate of the costs involved for a single day:

Building: $10,000 to rent a building that size for a day, another $10,000 for utilities, insurance and other assorted operations costs == $20,000
Personnel: 100 county employees averaging $50,000/year (~$200/workday) == $20,000
Juror missed work: 100 jurors averaging $50,000/year == $20,000
Juror pay: 100 jurors at $6 == $600
Transportation: $10 per employee/juror/defendant (let's say there were 1,000 defendants) == $12,000

Total: $73,600

There were maybe 10 cases that went to trial all day so that's $7,360 per case! Wow, more than $7k to try a $100 traffic ticket! At first blush that seems incredible--but on closer inspection it actually makes sense.

This goes back to something we studied at IMD: a group's decision-making process can be evaluated on two criteria: efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency measures how quickly the group arrives at a decision while effectiveness measures the quality of the decision the group produces. Generally the more efficient the process, the less effective it is (E.g. a quick straw poll with no discussion for an immediate decision) and vice versa. More effective decision-making processes (E.g. long debates, careful evaluation of all options, striving for consensus, etc.) come at the cost of efficiency.

Our judicial system is set up to be WAY out on the "effective" end. At the other end of the spectrum would be a single judge autonomously pronouncing judgement on each case without even hearing any arguments. $7k per trial buys us the guarantee of due process and an impartial jury of our peers. It is, literally, the price of freedom, the price of fairness. Put in context like this, I'll pay it gladly!

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