A Senate bill that would increase compensation for jurors selected for circuit court trials in Virginia from $30 to $100 a day has moved forward without opposition. The current compensation amount of $30 hasn’t changed in “decades,” the bill’s sponsor says.
“This bill came to me from somebody who has long worked in the court system,” Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in presenting the legislation. “And I was just completely unaware of the fact that it’s been $30 a day for decades — is my understanding.”
“So if you’ve got somebody who is working at a chicken plant and gets off for a one-day or two-day or three-day jury trial,” that can have a significant impact on them financially if they aren’t fairly compensated for their jury service, Lewis said.
There was no opposition among committee members, but Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, asked “if we have any idea” how much the legislation will cost once implemented.
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“Yes, $5 million,” Lewis said.
“That’s not as much as I thought,” replied Peake, expressing surprise by the number.
According to Virginia Department of Planning and Budget documents attached to the bill, the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia reported that the amount the state paid jurors in circuit court at $30 a day during fiscal 2019 — the most recent year unaffected by the pandemic — was $2,288,658.
Assuming juries are empaneled at the same pre-pandemic rate moving forward at $100 a day, it is anticipated the proposed bill would result in an expenditure of $5,340,201 annually to cover expected juror compensation — or more than double the 2019 amount.
“We had a heck of a time with finance staff, getting our arms around where the money came from and what it would cost,” Lewis told the committee.
Staff with the planning and budget office pointed out in the bill’s fiscal impact statement that the $5.3 million figure does not reflect the expected increase in the number of defendants who will opt for jury trials, due to changes in state law passed in 2020 regarding jury sentencing.
During the General Assembly’s 2020 special session, lawmakers passed a bill that transfers sentencing responsibilities for a jury trial from the jurors to a judge, unless a defendant specifically requests they be set by the jury.
Until the law was passed, Virginia and Kentucky were the only two states where if a defendant or prosecutor asked for a jury trial, the jury must also recommend the sentence — which in the large majority of cases is imposed by the presiding judge.
During debate on the legislation, the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys estimated the change could lead to an eightfold increase in jury trials and, without additional money to hire more prosecutors, they would be forced to agree to plea deals that are not commensurate with the crime.
Advocates of the law noted that only 1.3% of felony cases went to a jury trial in Virginia in 2019; 90% of the defendants opted to take a plea deal rather than risk what the jury may decide in punishment upon a conviction.
Supporters said the law would end what has been described as “the jury penalty,” which defendants risk when they are convicted and sentenced by a jury.
Before the new law went into effect on July 1, jurors could recommend sentences that in some cases would far exceed what a defendant would have received under sentencing by judges under state sentencing guidelines.
What was not discussed during Wednesday’s session is whether a more than threefold increase in jury pay would encourage a stronger turnout among prospective jurors.
Several localities in the Richmond-Petersburg region in recent years have had problems with residents summoned for jury duty failing to appear, causing some trials to be delayed or postponed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-0 on Wednesday to move Senate Bill 730 forward. It will now be considered by the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.