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Countywide : Board to Respond on Grand Jury Issues

The Board of Supervisors today will respond to several suggestions on how to expand the Orange County Grand Jury’s recruiting practices and how to clarify the requirements for serving on the panel.

The recommendations seek to better publicize the grand jury and assure prospective jurors they will be screened fairly. The suggestions, compiled by jury members, were submitted to the county in January and address criticisms leveled at the panel.

The jury’s recruiting process came under fire late last year from a variety of ethnic groups who said the panel does not reflect the county’s increasing diversity. Much of the criticism was sparked by a September grand jury report that attributed a host of societal ills--from crime to health care woes--to illegal immigrants.

The supervisors today will consider endorsing a report prepared by the county administrative office that addresses the list of suggestions and responds to each one. Several of the suggestions have already been acted upon.

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The jury’s recommendations and CAO’s responses were:

* Continue and expand Grand Jury Outreach Program, which publicizes the jury through community and civic groups to boost recruitment, the jury recommended. The recommendation also suggests encouraging members of the jury to join in the campaign by speaking about their participation. The CAO report supported this measure.

* Continue to seek annual approval from the Board of Supervisors to designate November as Grand Jury Awareness Month, the jury recommended. The board approved the designation last November, and the jury commissioner will add the item to the jury’s regular recruitment campaign, the CAO report shows.

* Judges on the selection committee should eliminate the home visit portion of the juror background check, the jury recommended. The CAO report responded that a review of state statutes showed the home visit to be necessary to confirm qualifications, including county residency.

* Judges should establish written, standard guidelines for narrowing the field of applicants to 30 candidates, the jury recommended. The CAO report said state statutes and case law grant Superior Court judges the discretion to whittle the field as they see fit. “To remove this step from the process would . . . be inconsistent with applicable law,” the CAO report said.

* Transfer the background checks of potential jurors from the district attorney’s office to the Orange County Marshal’s Department, the jury recommended. This suggestion was meant to diffuse any conflict of interest. The jury decides the merits of prosecutors’ cases, so they should be distanced from the candidate selection, jurors said. This suggestion has already been implemented, the CAO report shows.

* Order the jury commissioner and the Marshal’s Department to author guidelines for background checks, the jury recommended. This has already been done and will be used for the next panel selection process, the CAO report shows.

The grand jury serves as the county’s government watchdog and as an investigative branch of the district attorney’s office. Jurors serve a one-year term. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and over 18. The applicant deadline has passed for the 1995-96 panel, but people can placed on a mailing list for information on future juries by calling (714) 834-6747.

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