New US bill aims to help jurors who face mental health struggle in court

After failing in 2017, the legislation would introduce risk-reduction measures for jurors, who are required to complete extensive coursework before taking jury duty

A bill that would introduce risk-reduction measures for jurors is back in the works in Congress following a leading US senator’s push to assure jurors that they would have “many resources” to support those suffering from a mental illness.

The legislation, reintroduced by Republican senator Joni Ernst, was drafted after jury duty yielded heartbreaking results in 2016 when jurors convicted of murder in the deaths of two of their neighbors in Iowa.

Joan Baumann, who often overheard violence in her community, was also found guilty of not reporting a gunman who had taken an ex-boyfriend hostage in her neighborhood, and was sentenced to four years. The jury that found Susan Fisher guilty of a second-degree murder for the 2014 shootings that killed her neighbour and her roommate. Both women were found guilty of “dozens of times” of involuntary manslaughter and arrears in child support.

“There are a number of reasons why people become jurors, and under the law, we provide them with benefits,” Ernst said on Monday, according to a statement from her office. “Unfortunately, they are few and far between and often poorly-known, and we want to ensure jurors have those same benefits regardless of their situation.”

The bill would introduce risk-reduction measures for jurors, who are required to complete extensive coursework before taking jury duty, to ensure they have the resources they need to complete the job with “no distractions or negative effects”, according to Ernst’s office. The policy would also address “concerns that jurors would only be told to keep their eyes open for the ‘looks of fear’ on the faces of friends and neighbors while serving”.

“Because of the opioid epidemic, jurors have witnessed the tragic consequences of substance abuse and addiction first-hand,” Ernst said. “This legislation would provide these jurors with support and assistance as they serve.”

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Ernst, who has served as the freshman class’ attorney general in Iowa, first introduced the bill in 2017, but it died in committee. Since then, the bill has garnered the backing of police chiefs, prosecutors, the county bar association and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But the hope has been buoyed by a similar measure introduced by Kansas senator Jerry Moran and a pair of Republican senators in January. Moran, Ernst and Sen Lindsey Graham – who introduced a broader proposal – are expected to jointly introduce legislation before the start of 2018.

The bill, if passed, would establish a pilot program in certain counties across the US that would provide free and confidential mental health services to jurors who have gone through stressful court proceedings or had served on a jury.

Jurors who have served on a “significant number” of panel proceedings would be offered the support package.

It would also set aside $3m to pay for their free care while awaiting a court date, and remove a bar that could make them ineligible for some government benefits if they can’t complete jury duty.

Other states, including Oklahoma, have already similar programs to help mitigate the negative effects of jury duty.

At the time of her Senate bid in 2016, Ernst used the tragedy to question whether there should be changes to the process of jury selection.

“I was asked to take this on with the best of intentions,” she said on Monday. “We’re encouraged by this new initiative because this new law will ensure jury service doesn’t become a prison sentence. We want to get to work on this issue and work with our colleagues in the House and the Senate to pass this legislation into law.”

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