We, the jury

September 27, 2004

NO WORD YET as to whether the offer of a "free" soft drink (with the purchase of a sandwich at some courthouse-area restaurants) has solved Baltimore's no-show juror problem. Strictly speaking, it's too early to tell. The incentive plan was just unveiled last week. A lot of people may be holding out to see what coupon comes next. A free refill on coffee? Half-off dessert? Maybe some pre-moistened towelettes to tidy up?

Yes, it's easy to ridicule the efforts by Baltimore's men and women in robes to do something (albeit a very, very small something) about a real problem -- the failure of many to show up for jury duty. Besides the sodas, the judges announced a modest discount on parking and the promise of a Juror Appreciation Week later in the year. How quaint.

But give the judiciary credit for trying. Baltimore's jury problem is serious business, and it's getting worse. As Keith E. Mathews, the city's top District Court judge, will tell you, it used to require summoning 600 jurors to get 250 to show up. These days, it's more like 900. That means no-shows outnumber law-abiders by nearly 3-to-1. Lecturing city residents about personal responsibility -- and jury duty as an obligation of citizenship -- doesn't do much good. Neither does sending scofflaws to jail or imposing a fine. It's been tried.

Like so many of Baltimore's woes, the jury problem stems from the city's concentrated poverty. There's so much more crime that city residents are called on far more often to serve. And many of these potential jurors can ill afford the obligation -- child care is not a ready option, and the loss of a day's pay can be catastrophic. Yet jurors are reimbursed only $15 a day for expenses (the state-funded minimum) while neighboring counties offer higher compensation and free parking, comfortable lounges in their courthouses, and the promise that jurors won't be summoned again for at least three years.

Mere coupons aren't going to put a dent in that. But there are reasonable steps that could be taken to lessen this problem -- if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly are willing to pursue them.

First, the state needs to make more people eligible for jury duty. Under current law, anyone who has ever been convicted of a crime punishable by six months in jail or a $500 fine can't serve. That may be the strictest juror qualification standard in the nation. It means that someone who was busted for shoplifting, writing a bad check or drug possession at age 18 can't be a juror -- ever. Let people reclaim the full rights of citizenship after a reasonable amount of time has passed.

Next, people called for jury duty shouldn't have to pay to park a car downtown or ride the bus to the courthouse. The city may not be able to come up with the money for this, but the state can -- and there's precedent. In rural Somerset County, residents of Smith Island get state-financed rides on the local ferry when they serve on a jury. Why not let Baltimore residents get a one-day pass courtesy of the Maryland Transit Administration? The MTA already gives free service to state employees.

Finally, the city's courthouse and annex are in terrible shape. It would take more than $320 million to rehabilitate them. That's money that the city doesn't have. But how about a state grant for some scaled-down upgrades? Again, there's precedent. The state pays for new District Court facilities. And if jurors didn't have to sit around and twiddle their thumbs in dank, cramped conditions, they might feel slightly better about the experience.

Free drinks aside, Baltimore's judges were right to try to do something about no-shows. Even if they can't solve this vexing problem, they've brought more public attention to an important civic obligation. Now it's up to the folks in Annapolis to join the conversation -- and make sure the city courts can continue to function effectively.

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