Take a chance on choice

An opt-in jury system could solve the Honor Committee’s jury problems

As the coming University elections have drawn closer, the Honor Committee’s Restore the Ideal Act has been widely discussed. Numerous editorials both condemning and praising the act have been published, Facebook groups have formed and campaigns have started. The debate has tapped into dormant passion and opinion about honor issues from within the student body. I do not expect the reform to pass, but I think the debate it has inspired is crucial. I have been an outspoken critic of the act, but I also believe the issues it was intended to fix need to be addressed. The honor system as we know it may be changed, without our consent, by the University administration if we don’t. The problems with the consistency and justice of the system cannot remain.

That problems exist does not mean the reforms should pass. Rather, I think the student body has to become involved in the process of finding a solution that speaks to the concerns of both the committee and its opposition in this debate. I’m going to try to get that process started by offering an alternative idea for jury reform.

Jury reform in the Restore the Ideal Act is intended to eliminate inconsistencies in verdicts reached by random student juries. According to the Committee, jury discomfort with the single sanction, apathy toward the process and lack of understanding of the Committee’s bylaws create an incentive for students to lie their way through the process. The act’s proponents claim an all-Committee jury would be too well-trained and experienced to be duped in a similar way. The act’s critics point to two primary concerns with the proposal’s jury-reform component. The first is the elimination of the larger community of trust from the honor process. The second is the consolidation of such a huge power within a select group of students, chosen through relatively uncompetitive elections, in a position with little structure for accountability.

Is there a potential solution that speaks to the concerns of both sides? I would suggest changing the jury pool to an opt-in system. The Honor Committee could publicize its need for jurors at the start of each semester, and students could decide if they wanted to commit to being in the pool. Such an initiative would ensure that only students who were truly willing to serve would be selected, while still giving the entire student body the right to be in the jury pool. There could then be an extensive training session at the start of each semester to ensure those who sign up understand the system as well as possible and are comfortable with all of the duties they would be required to perform. Then when they are selected to serve on a trial, they could have a brief session to remind them of their training so the bylaws are fresh in their minds. This process would ensure that any student who wished could be part of the jury pool, that all jurors would be fully prepared and dedicated to their duties and that the Committee could be held accountable by members of the larger student body.

The most important difference between this idea and the current proposal is that the Restore the Ideal Act limits the jury to members of the University who have the time, resources and charisma to win an election. The opt-in system would select for the only trait relevant to service as a juror: dedication to the justice of the system. The Committee has argued that all-Committee juries are necessary to give more consistent verdicts in trials, or, in other words, to ensure two students facing similar accusations and evidence receive the same result. But because opt-in systems garner lower rates of participation than opt-out systems, jurors would not only be exceptionally committed to their duties but might also experience multiple trials. More training and experience would result in a more consistent standard for conviction even without a Committee jury. If there were slight discrepancies, it would be because of a variety of perspectives and opinions within the jury pool, not because of incompetence or apathy. Small failures in consistency are a worthy price of diversity of opinion in such a powerful institution, and the Honor Committee is not known for its diversity.

The Honor Committee is right to push jury reform as necessary to the survival of honor as we know it at the University. But it is wrong to insist that the student body must be cut out of the system for positive change to be accomplished. We deserve the best solution possible to these problems, and the current proposal is too fundamentally flawed to merit passage. But we, as students, can be part of the process to find a solution that protects all of our stakes in honor, whether it be my proposal above or something entirely different. I look forward to having this conversation regardless of the outcome of the vote. I hope you’ll join me.

Forrest Brown’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at f.brown@cavalierdaily.com.

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