Thursday, September 13, 2007
In recent years, the grand jury has been overly criticized and underutilized. While many recent scholars have proposed reforms that would re-invigorate the grand jury, most of these reforms are ill-designed and unmoored to the historical purposes of the grand jury. In an era of plea bargains, the grand jury has the potential to serve a crucial role in insuring popular legitimacy in the criminal justice system. While much of the existing rhetoric about the grand jury is wrong, some criticism of the institution is certainly due.
As the United States has become more diverse, the grand jury has lost its role as “the voice of the community” and become instead a melting pot in which each community's voice is lost amid a cacophony of voices from other communities. Since a grand jury functions by majority vote and is now generally drawn from the entire jurisdiction, the grand jury no longer serves as a counter-majoritarian force of the local community against central authority.
The gradual homogenization of the grand jury may have had a particularly strong impact on minority communities where legitimacy issues are most serious. Ironically, it was well-intentioned efforts to insure diversity in criminal justice – through the rule that trial juries should be drawn from panels representing a “fair cross-section of the community” – that undermined the grand jury's role when this rule was unthinkingly imported into the grand jury context.
No jurisdiction is just one community, and no grand jury can serve its purpose of representing any community if it is drawn from all communities. The proper way to restore the grand jury is neither to manipulate grand jury evidentiary rules nor to adopt any other reforms that have been proposed in recent years, but instead to insure that the grand jury represents an actual community. Grand juries must be reconstituted so that each grand jury represents a neighborhood, an actual community of people who are concerned about local issues of criminal justice. [Mark Godsey]