No-show jurors

April 20, 2004

DONTE BRYANT, Gloria Bell and Bonnie Bunch are getting their day in court - whether they want it or not. The three Baltimore residents have been summoned to court today to explain why they shouldn't be fined or sent to jail for skipping out on jury duty this year. That may seem harsh, but there must be a consequence of citizens' failing to perform this essential civic duty. The trouble is, the city courts have neither the staff nor the time to haul all of the no-shows into court.

But what if prospective jurors who failed to heed the call had their driver's license or car registration renewals flagged? Would that get their attention? You bet it would.

At least Mr. Bryant, Ms. Bell and Ms. Bunch initially reported for jury duty - they just didn't come back after they collected their $15 jury fee, court officials say. Under the law, however, they are treated the same as no-shows. And there are plenty of them: Of the 800 summoned daily for jury duty, at least 200 don't appear.

The no-shows plus the 250 or so people who are excused for valid reasons make it hard for court officials to collect a big enough jury pool to meet the increasing demand for jury trials. City officials have been forced to summon more jurors from the rolls of voters and licensed drivers.

Clearly, the consequence of not showing doesn't amount to much - the no-shows receive a failure to appear notice and are put back into the pool for service at another time. That hardly seems an incentive to appear the next time around. It's only after repeated no-shows that a prospective juror could face criminal contempt charges. Even then, judges rarely send someone to jail.

This problem has plagued the city courts for some time, and it's not unique to Baltimore - Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Dallas and New York have battled this problem. In Los Angeles, court officials discovered that simply resending a summons brought in 31,000 of the 109,000 prospective jurors who initially failed to appear. When Los Angeles issued a tougher show-cause summons to the remaining no-shows, 20,000 more people responded, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Baltimore should get tougher with its no-shows and summon them into court after their initial nonappearances. It also should pursue state legislative approval to delay driver's license and registration renewal to a citizen who repeatedly fails to appear for jury duty. Currently, that hammer exists for people who don't pay child support or parking tickets or who have outstanding warrants.

The court system also needs to police itself - a computer error left 80,000 potential jurors off the rolls. The city should do what it can to put them - and those who fail to appear - at the top of the list for jury duty.

Citizens who forsake this civic responsibility compromise every American's right to be judged by a jury of his peers.

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