Frustrated by no-shows, courts sweeten jury duty

September 16, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Serve on a city jury and you could be eligible for a package that includes discount parking and a free soda (if you buy a sandwich). But wait, there's more: You also will be feted in a citywide tribute called Juror Appreciation Week.

It's a deal that Baltimore's judges hope will convince the city's citizens that serving on a jury isn't so bad. And while the effort to improve the turnout is modest, it's all the beleaguered courts could muster.

"It is intended to make a juror's life more pleasant," said Circuit Judge John C. Themelis, who oversees the city's jurors.

Each weekday, the city calls as many as 900 Baltimoreans to jury duty, hoping 250 will actually appear.

Keith E. Mathews, the city's top District Court judge, announced yesterday that the get-out-the-jurors drive also will include an essay contest among city school students about the importance of jury duty.

Jurors receive $15 a day, which invariably is not enough to cover their parking, lunch and transportation - not to mention lost wages for the day.

"I mean, $15 doesn't get you very far," Themelis said.

The plan would offer jurors parking for $4 in a privately owned lot and a free soft drink at five restaurants near the courthouse with the purchase of a sandwich. Downtown parking usually costs about $12. Two other restaurants are offering jurors small discounts on lunch.

In the late 1990s, the city needed to call about 500 people to fill its jury pool, compared with the 900 today.

"I don't know why, but the numbers seem to be getting worse," Mathews said after a meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, where he made the announcement. "I was shocked."

Hundreds of people each day ignore their summonses along with a seldom-enforced warning on the notice: "Your failure to appear could subject you to a fine or imprisonment."

Judges have tried bringing no-shows into court and scolding them, and have sent out a few arrest warrants that have not yet been served.

Themelis said he is not sure what he would do if the warrants are executed and the deadbeat jurors are brought before him.

"I don't have to worry about it before they catch them," he said.

Judges have even considered a get-tough alternative - working with the Motor Vehicle Administration to block no-show jurors from renewing their driver's licenses or registering their cars.

`Make citizens aware'

But the free soda-parking discount approach represents a softer tack.

Billboards and banners will express appreciation, and let citizens know that the overburdened court system can't function without them.

During Juror Appreciation Week, which is likely to be at the end of the year, officials will "make citizens aware of jury duty," Mathews said. Mayor Martin O'Malley will sign a proclamation heralding the event.

"We are willing to do whatever is necessary to encourage citizens to show up for, and participate in, jury duty," said the mayor's spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. "We're all well aware that it is a problem."

Circuit Court Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland said if jurors don't show up once, they will soon get a "gentle reminder" letter from her. After that, they will have to appear in court to explain why they didn't show initially.

In the past, action was taken only after jurors failed to show up three times or more.

Mathews said the city doesn't have money to pay for juror perks, so the court had to ask local businesses to chip in.

Bhavin Patel, owner of the Roly Poly sandwich shop one block from the courthouse, said he agreed to participate in the free-soda lunch program to drum up more business.

Patel said court officials did not tell him they were having problems with no-show jurors when they asked him to participate. He said he is perplexed by the problem.

"I am from Connecticut, and when I got a summons, I had to show up," said Patel, who moved here about a year ago. "I don't understand why it doesn't work that way here in Baltimore."

Admittedly, neither do Baltimore officials.

Urban problem

Studies show that no-show jurors are primarily an urban problem - Philadelphia, Detroit and New York experience similar difficulties. In Baltimore's surrounding counties it is rare for more than a handful of jurors not to appear at the courthouse.

Themelis, who oversees Baltimore's jurors, said the get-out-the-juror drive is a "short-term fix."

He has asked a juror expert from the Virginia-based National Center of State Courts to examine why people are not coming to jury duty.

But because of funding problems, that expert might not come for another year.

"We're hoping in short term we can encourage jurors to come here," he said. "A year from now we'll know if any of it works."

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