Doing one's duty

December 01, 2006

Martin O'Malley showed up for jury duty on Monday. Perhaps you read about this. It was in all the papers. While it may strike some as novel for anyone as busy as a governor-elect to be caught up in such rigmarole, he deserves no great plaudits. He was summoned and met his civic obligation - as every qualified person must.

Unfortunately, getting people to honor this responsibility is getting harder and harder, particularly in Baltimore where a staggering 63 percent of those summoned for jury duty were no-shows last year. That means only about 1 in 3 people actually show up to serve on a jury. In Baltimore County the no-show rate is about 15 percent - not great but far short of the city's shameful rate.

The General Assembly increased the penalties for no-shows this year. Failing to fill out a jury qualification form can result in a fine of $1,000 and 30 days in jail. Not showing up for jury duty can result in the same fine plus 60 days in jail, and beginning, but not completing, jury duty can get someone a full 90 days behind bars.

That may be helpful. It's certainly a lot scarier than what it replaced: a $100 fine and up to 3 days in jail that reportedly caused more than a few reluctant jurors to offer to pay rather than serve. But we're skeptical that many prison cells will have to be reserved. Judges don't typically send no-shows to the slammer, and that's probably appropriate. But then there's nothing wrong with threatening people into doing the right thing either.

In that spirit, here's a better enforcement tool: People who don't show up for jury duty ought to be subjected to a day-long series of extremely dry lectures on the justice system dating back to the Magna Carta and the concept of trial by a jury of one's peers. Surely if Mayor O'Malley, who has just six weeks left to form a new state government, has the time for a jury pool, there aren't many legitimate excuses available for the rest of us.

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