The Napa County civil grand jury exists to act as a watchdog for the public, but its demographic makeup doesn’t much resemble the public it serves.
The state requires county courts to track grand jury demographics and encourages them to conduct outreach in such a way that attracts candidates who “reflect a representative cross-section of the community,” according to the California Rules of Court.
And while the Napa County Superior Court appears to have seen modest improvement from a recent campaign to publish Spanish language materials, 14 of the 19 grand jurors sworn into service last July were white. Twelve were male and no jurors were younger than 55 years old, according to the grand jury’s website.
The California Grand Jurors’ Association, an organization of grand jurors statewide, says it does not track demographics and has no way to know whether Napa is typical. Statistics on grand juries elsewhere indicate that Napa Valley isn’t the only county with representation issues.
Two current Napa grand jury members say they don’t think the demographic makeup of the grand jury affects its work. Part of the problem in attracting volunteers or ideas from a representative cross-section of the public, jurors say, is that serving on a grand jury is a significant time investment for $15 per-meeting stipends. And few people really understand what a grand jury is, let alone how they can submit complaints to jurors.
“I think that’s always a concern, that the makeup of a grand jury affects what it wants to look into,” said Yolanda Woods, who noticed her first day that she was the grand jury’s lone Latina. She also noticed “there’s so little representation from a female point of view.”
Woods stressed that her experience on the grand jury has been a positive one and she may even consider applying again.
Two American Indian or Alaska Native jurors were sworn on to the grand jury in July and two others declined to state their ethnicity.
Not a single juror was less than 55 years old and 12 of the 19 jurors were male.
A couple of the original jurors have since left the grand jury, so the current demographics may have slightly changed. Two alternate jurors younger than 55 years old have since joined the group, said grand jury foreperson Kort van Bronkhorst.
By contrast, 2017 census estimates show that half of Napa Valley is male and half is white. Another third of the population is Hispanic or Latino, nearly one in ten is Asian, one percent is American Indian or Alaska Native, and two percent is black or African-American. Census data doesn’t show how age breaks down for residents between 18 and 65 years old.
Eleven of the 19 jurors originally sworn into service were retired. It can be hard for people with families or full-time jobs to commit to something as time-consuming as the grand jury, jurors say.
Van Bronkhorst, who is in his second year of grand jury service, says this year’s grand jury is more geographically representative of Napa Valley. He’s unsure whether any jurors live in American Canyon, but says more Upvalley residents now participate.
He pointed to topics the grand jury addressed last year and said they affect everyone, regardless of race. Such topics include climate change, emergency alerts during the fires and housing for farmworkers.
“There may be topics that are not brought up just because there aren’t certain demographics in the group, but it doesn’t mean that we are choosing not to address those topics,” Van Bronkhorst said.
What is a grand jury?
Civil grand juries are written into the state constitution and have the authority to investigate county offices and other matters deemed important to residents. People tend to confuse grand juries with the juries that oversee criminal cases, which are randomly selected from a pool of voters.
The Napa County Superior Court reviews applications, conducts interviews and narrows down the pool to 30 people, then conducts a random draw. The first 19 picked make it to the jury and the other 11 applicants become alternates.
The demographics of the grand jury, which is randomly selected, depend on who’s applying, Van Bronkhorst said.
Last year, 59 people applied. More than three quarters of applicants were white, 60 percent were male and 20 percent were younger than 55 years old.
Grand jury member Woods said applicants who are not highly educated or business owners, for example, may be too intimidated to join. Woods, who is an immigrant herself, said that could especially be true for immigrants, who may not be as aware of community resources, speak a different language or have different values.
People don’t seem to know that the grand jury considers citizen complaints when deciding what issues to take on, she said. Residents can be heard even if they don’t want to volunteer.
“If the grand jury is not demographically representative, their concerns could still be looked at,” she said.
How the jury is selected
The application asks prospective jurors whether they have ever sued a public agency, whether they have lived in the county for a year, whether they have ever worked for a public agency and more.
The court and Napa County Chapter of the California Grand Jurors’ Association take the lead on outreach for potential grand jurors, said Connie Brennan, who works for the court and oversees grand jury matters.
The recruitment period runs from March to April. The court places bilingual informational announcements in Napa Recycling & Waste Services bills, city of Napa water bills, Upper Valley Waste Disposal bills and newspaper advertisements. It also sends a press release to news media.
Brennan’s goal next time around is to place an announcement that targets the southern end of the valley.
Charles Koch, head of the Napa chapter of the state grand juror’s association, said the group has tried to find a more representative group of jurors by doing more canvassing and reaching out to Hispanic community leaders and members.
They’ve started holding forums that give speakers a platform to discuss community issues. The hope is that the Napa association will have a chance to preach its cause to a group of community-oriented people, he said.
“It’s always been an issue to diversify more,” he said. “We’re trying to balance the face ... of the grand jury with the face of the population in Napa County.”
The grand jury has attracted applications from varying numbers of people of color over the years, but only one Hispanic or Latino applicant applied in both 2016 and 2017.
Bob Fleshman, court executive officer of the Napa County Superior Court, noted that the Spanish language announcement was only created two years ago. In 2018, there were five Hispanic or Latino applicants.
It’s too soon to tell whether this could be a trend. But Woods of the grand jury hopes that more Latinos in the Napa Valley will participate in the future.
“It’s important to encourage other Latinos,” she said. “They need to know that this is a place where they can be heard.”