NJ jury selection reforms begin in September with pilot program
New Jersey is launching a pilot program, in select counties, that will largely shift the way a prospective jury pool is whittled down before the start of a trial.
With the program that starts on Sept. 1 in Middlesex, Bergen, and Camden counties, attorneys will have the option to lead the questioning of potential jurors, instead of letting the show be run by the judge that's presiding over the case.
"It's your way of trying to make sure that there's not someone sitting on the jury that you don't think is going to be fair to you," said Domenick Carmagnola, immediate past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association.
The move is one of many recent proposals approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court that aim to eliminate bias during the jury selection process.
"The studies show that attorneys do a better job at sussing out bias and preconceived notions than judges do," said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. "Ultimately, we think this is the system that gives us the best chance at getting juries that are truly representative of the diversity of our state."
The pilot program will be voluntary, meaning both the prosecuting attorney and defense counsel would have to agree to the process, known as attorney-conducted voir dire.
The program is limited to criminal cases — specifically, single-defendant criminal cases. Carmagnola, with the Bar Association, said that's one of a couple issues the group has with the implementation of the trial run.
"Our recommendation was, don't just make it about criminal cases," he said. "Include civil cases, so we have a broader base to look at."
They also take issue with the rule that participating attorneys must agree to a reduced number of peremptory challenges (objections to prospective jurors). Currently, in cases that involve homicide, sexual assault, burglary and other serious crimes, the defense is permitted 20 peremptory challenges and the prosecution has 10. With this pilot, the defense will have eight and the prosecution gets six.
Other reforms announced by the Supreme Court in July include restoring jury eligibility for individuals who've completed their sentence on a criminal conviction, and beginning the process of increasing pay for jurors.