Christina Lee: Pay Our Jurors More

On a Monday in early May, I was summoned to report for jury duty. Inside the Fulton County courthouse, a building in downtown Atlanta named the Justice Center Tower, I waited with other residents in line as several public service announcements played on television screens lining the walls. In those videos, judges like Ural Glanville implore how guaranteeing a trial by jury is one of our biggest responsibilities as U.S. citizens. 

The judge I actually met that Monday, Rachel Krause, sent me a signed “thank you” note a week later. “I realize that the jury selection process is time-consuming and in some instances tedious, however, your willingness to serve is important in the integrity and functioning of our jury system,” she wrote.

I don’t doubt that Krause’s intentions behind that note were sincere. Yet even now, her words are cold comfort. I was one of 56 potential candidates chosen to serve a criminal case that would have lasted an entire week. I was named juror number 17 at 10:30 that morning. And deliberation between prosecution and defense—a series of questions for each potential juror, on whether we could be fair, honest, and impartial—lasted until 6pm. I wasn’t selected. And I still needed a week to catch up on the work obligations I deferred that day.

For my troubles, I made $12.49. (That’s the $25 juror daily rate in Fulton County, minus the cost of a Naanstop salad I bought for lunch.) I was deeply annoyed all week, and that’s while knowing that I wasn’t nearly as inconvenienced as those who were actually selected. The woman who sat to my right, juror number 16, was two weeks away from delivering her third child. She was worried that this baby, like her second child, would actually arrive two weeks early. Yet, there she was—the last juror selected for the case. 

Frankly, instead of being lectured on how essential jurors are to justice, I’d rather see this system actually pay jurors a fairer rate, to make those civic duties more accessible to Georgians. As is, these rates amount to a tremendous financial burden—not just for its citizens, but for the courts themselves. It’s high time the system put its money where its gratitude is.

Georgia’s daily juror rate has never been great. In 2012 it was as low as $5, which was second only to Illinois at a shocking $4. And it’s actually decreased since 1969, when the state enacted a flat $30 fee.

That’s pennies compared to the apparent penalties for shirking your civic duties: a $500 fine and jail time for up to 20 days. Yet by 2011, nearly half the people summoned for jury duty failed to report. At the time, legal expert Jessica Gabel Cino attributed the no-shows to hard facts about Fulton County’s cost of living. Plus, many of those summoned might not have transportation. And for others, $25 per day simply wouldn’t be enough to compensate for lost work and/or child care. 

I have to figure that similar logic applies today: A single adult in Atlanta needs to earn just above $20 an hour to live comfortably. (That’s four times more than Georgia’s minimum wage, by the way. That rate is also more than what would be required in the rest of the state, since Atlanta’s cost of living is 18% higher than Georgia’s average.) All told, daily juror pay would barely cover an hour’s worth of decent pay.

This year, the Fulton County court system has danced around the fact that county residents can’t afford to fulfill their civic duties as it’s dealt with what could be the longest criminal trial in Georgia’s history. At six to nine months, this case could potentially surpass even the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandals cases, which lasted eight months from 2014 to 2015.

In May 2022, the district attorney’s office accused rapper Young Thug of running his label Young Stoner Life as a criminal street gang—a 56-count RICO indictment with 26 defendants total. It’s the latest unfortunate example of rap lyrics being used as criminal evidence.

But in Fulton County, this trial is consequential for other reasons. Jury selection for the YSL trial began on January 9, and, as of this writing in August, more than 2,000 people have been summoned. But the next step in that process, known as voir dire, wouldn’t start until nearly seven months later. By contrast, most Fulton County trials, from jury selection to verdict, usually last three to five days.

AJC reporters Shaddi Abusaid and Jozsef Papp have done a terrific job documenting who these potential jurors were and the sorts of hardships they would face. They’ve found that in Fulton County, people still lack access to reliable transportation and affordable childcare. My favorite example of an excused juror, though, remains the Twitch streamer who maintains that “she needs to game to make money/eat,” according to Abusaid. 

As a full-time freelance reporter, that gamer and I are technically part of Atlanta’s gig economy. Twitch does not care that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a trial by jury. Similarly, my freelance clients aren’t liable to care about that civic duty, either.

Jury selection for the YSL trial is being drawn out—potentially until September—in part because jury duty pay here is absurdly low. And in Fulton County specifically, that fact has had dire consequences. 

For one, it’s been tough to imagine what a potential jury for the YSL trial could even look like at this rate, though one jury consultant has said, “This would not be a jury of anyone’s peers.” As in, anyone who does end up serving this trial will likely either be retired and/or wealthy. 

Even back in March, the languishing jury selection, with one hardship exemption filed after another, was contributing to a case backlog affecting metro Atlanta, according to reporting by Rolling Stone contributor George Chidi. For more than a year, Young Thug has waited for trial proceedings to begin while detained at Fulton County’s jail, which the Southern Center for Human Rights and the ACLU found has long suffered from overcrowding. Police cannot handle these conditions, and neither can its inmates: Overcrowding at such facilities can lead to increased violence, self-harm, and suicide.

When I initially started researching this essay, I thought that asking Georgia to pay more for jury duty would seem absurd. But I’m happy to report that in 2022, Arizona’s first juror pay increase in 50 years bumped the rate from $12 to between $40 and $300, depending on whether the juror actually serves on a trial. A California bill would also raise jury pay from $15 to $100, after a pilot program found that lower-income residents and residents of color were—go figure!—more eager to serve jury duty if they were more fairly compensated.

Now it’s our turn.

In Georgia, a pay increase would allow for an actual jury of peers. Instead of imploring how invaluable jury duty is, the court systems could actually show it. And in Fulton County especially, the courts system could become much more expedient at serving precisely what it’s supposed to: justice.

Christina Lee

Christina Lee is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Bitter Southerner, The Guardian, GQ, NPR, The Washington Post, and more. She a contributing editor at Canopy Atlanta. King Slime, the podcast she co-hosts with George Chidi about the YSL trial, debuts August 15.