Last year, Baltimore court officials sent a quarter-million summonses to potential jurors, culled from driver's license and voting records, knowing that only a fraction — about 27 percent — of those called would show up.
The city has tried offering restaurant coupons, parking discounts and a "Juror Appreciation Week" to bring in more people over the years — threatening some of the worst truants with jail time — but the efforts have largely fallen flat. They even asked for volunteers one year, until someone pointed out it was illegal.
And now they're putting their hopes into a new software system that's supposed to make being summoned easier and more efficient. It streamlines the process, allows for online postponements and form filing, and automates a lot of the check-in procedure, which should speed things along in the mornings so trials can start on time.
The technology was rolled out in some smaller Maryland jurisdictions over the past few years, and came to busier Baltimore this winter. The first batch of city residents summoned through it are scheduled to appear in Circuit Court on Monday. So far, less than a third of the recipients have responded to the qualifying questionnaire as required.
"We're on track for at least not falling behind," said Baltimore Jury Commissioner Nancy M. Dennis, her expectations apparently tempered by years of criticism and poor turnout.
Hers is, at times, a thankless job that takes in more complaints than compliments. The same people are called over and over for service, residents say, while their neighbors are never called, and most of those who show up aren't chosen for a trial. Deceased people are summoned, as are those who moved out of state or live in surrounding counties. And thousands upon thousands of others simply ignore the notice when it arrives in the mail.
In short, some locals say, Baltimore's system is a mess.
"Antiquated" is the word Dennis used.
A duty, not a choice
Dennis points out that residents themselves are part of the problem. Some treat jury duty as an option rather than an obligation, and many others fail to update their motor vehicle or voting records so they can be removed from the summons list when they relocate.
Trial by jury is a "constitutional guarantee that we all have," Dennis said. "The only way to protect that guarantee for all of us is for all of us to participate."
Urban areas in general have a harder time keeping up with their residents, who are more likely to be transient and mistrustful of the legal system because of higher crime rates, according to studies on juror habits. While Maryland counties have some no-shows, the problem is on a much smaller scale.
In Somerset County, which began using the new software in 2010, only 1 percent of the 3,600 jurors called annually don't show up, according to Court Administrator Sally Rankin. Dorchester County, which calls about 6,700 people per year, has a 10 percent no-show rate. Both of those counties also require jurors to serve for a month, whereas Baltimore service is for one day or for one trial.
About 40 percent of those called in Baltimore ignore the summons in any given year, Dennis said. The rest either appear as called or request a postponement, and a large number of summonses are returned as undeliverable.
"I think there's some laziness, I think there's some cost factors" to the brush-off, said Greg Hurley, an analyst with the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. "You're missing a day of whatever it is you're going to be doing."
Baltimore has to call far more jurors than it could ever use just to get a bare minimum of those it needs, which increases mailing costs and wastes time in generating the notices. It also means a greater percentage of the overall pool, which Dennis estimates to be about 375,000 people, will be sent a notice every year, leading some people to serve repeatedly — if they're the type to actually come when called.
The summonses come "like clockwork," said David Cohen, a 34-year-old information technology specialist who lives in Northwest Baltimore. He and his wife moved to the area about a dozen years ago, and he said he has been called at least seven times. His wife has been called only once.
That kind of discrepancy is a common complaint among Baltimore residents, who say the selection system is flawed.
Many of those called are repeats, Dennis acknowledged. But it's getting better, she said. She likes to ask the jury candidates each morning how many are first-timers. It used to be that only 10 percent to 15 percent of the hands would go up, she said, but over the past 18 months, the figure has ballooned to about 40 percent.
She's not completely sure why, considering that the call list is random. She chalks it up to more people appearing when called because word is getting around that there are consequences for shirking jury duty.