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Bill could increase court fees to make Indiana jurors among the highest-paid nationally

The Seal of the Marion County Superior Court on a courtroom door window in Indiana
Brandon Smith
/
IPB News
Hoosiers currently get $40 for each day spent on an active jury in the courtroom.

Some Indiana courts have struggled to get peopleto serve on juries in recent years, hurting juror diversity and, in some cases, forcing judges to declare mistrials.

Some lawmakers hope raising jury compensation might help.

“The protection of our rights and liberties is largely achieved through teamwork of jurors and judge,” said Rep. Michelle Davis, a Republican from Whiteland. “It has been at least 25 years since the juror compensation rate has been increased.”

A bill – HB 1466 – authored by Davis to double jury compensation passed a House committee last week with strong bipartisan support from lawmakers and court officials, though some questioned whether fees are the best way to cover the cost.

“In each and every trial, invariably, there are a handful of people that say they cannot afford to sit for jury service,” said Lake County Judge Sam Cappas during testimony. “They live check-to-check. The money [is] not enough to compensate them, they can't pay their bills.”

Hoosiers currently get $40 for each day spent on an active jury in the courtroom. With some days of trial lasting seven to 10 hours, that jury pay is equivalent to just over half the state’s $7.25 minimum hourly wage.

“They hear and see testimony that people would choose not to. They've seen them look at gruesome photos [and] turn their head away. I've seen them listen to heart-wrenching testimony and cry. They do hard work,” Cappas said. “They're grossly underpaid.”

HB 1466 would double the compensation to $80, which would increase to $90 after the sixth day of trial.

This bill could make Indiana jurors some of the highest-paid in the nation. The National Center for State Courts found the most any state paid jurors directly was $50 per day as of April 2022. Several states have considered increases since then, including West Virginia, where a 2022 bill to also raise the pay to $80 failed to become law.

The state also pays jurors $15 for each day they are impaneled, but not actively in court. HB 1466 would raise those payments to $30.

Daviess County Prosecutor Dan Murrie testified it’s gotten “harder and harder” to find jurors over the last decade. The pay increase could help get juries that represent “a good cross-section” of the community, he said, but he’s not sure it’s enough.

“The idea that this is compensation is almost a step too far for me personally, because 80 bucks [for] a whole day of doing the foundational piece of the justice system, I mean, maybe that's a token of appreciation,” Murrie said. “It's treated as taxable income. So they're not even getting the full $80.”

Workers legally can’t be fired for taking time off work for jury duty, but Murrie said sometimes employers don’t “play along.” And employers are not required to provide pay during that time off.

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The bill proposes covering costs by raising fees on defendants who are found guilty from $2 to $6. People who file certain types of lawsuits, specifically a tort or plenary action, would be charged a $75 fee because such cases use a jury. Other types of civil actions, like those in small claims courts, would not be subject to any fee because they typically do not use juries.

Bernice Corley, Indiana Public Defender Council director, testified in support of the bill but told lawmakers she worries fees could harm low-income defendants.

“I speak just out of concern for our clients,” she said. “Our clients are indigent. And while $4 doesn't seem like much, there are already a lot of fines and fees on people who are convicted of a criminal offense.”

Corley pointed to a 10-year strategic plan the Judicial Conference of Indiana created in 2020 that called for an end to the state's fee-based justice system.

“Like many states, Indiana has chosen to rely upon fines, fees and costs in the courts system to help support not only the courts, but a dizzying array of other government functions,” the report said. “Because such fines, fees and costs are disproportionately borne by the poor, they act as a regressive tax on parties least able to pay… We have discovered that when they do not pay, the indigent could find themselves incarcerated – a practice which harkens back to debtor prisons of old.”

Rep. Matt Pierce, a Democrat from Bloomington, said it was “frustrating” that lawmakers were unwilling to use general fund revenues for integral systems like the court.

“I understand that this cropped up in the mid-'90s when it was very politically popular to say, ‘hey, let's make the criminals the bad actors pay for all this stuff, not the hardworking taxpayer,'” Pierce said. “I understand there's appeal to that. But it is an integral function.”

He and the other members of the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee voted unanimously to pass the bill Thursday. Though, Pierce said he might consider an amendment to change the bill’s funding source when it gets to the House floor.

Before it gets to that step, HB 1466 must pass through the Ways and Means Committee before because House rules require any bill “with an annual fiscal impact to the State in excess of $50,000” to that committee.

Adam is Indiana Public Broadcasting's labor and employment reporter. Contact him at arayes@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.
Copyright 2023 IPB News.

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Adam Yahya Rayes