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.
Rewards and punishments
Technically, the law allows for a fine of up to $1,000 and 60 days in jail, but both punishments are unheard of. Typically, absentee jurors are sent a second summons, calling them to a hearing to explain their nonattendance and pick another date.
"Usually we give people the opportunity to complete their service," said Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, who is this year's acting jury judge overseeing the system. He said he holds about 30 of those hearings a month but rarely resorts to punishment.
Other city judges haven't been so lenient.
In 1995 and 1997, now-retired Judge Edward J. Angeletti sentenced residents who'd missed three or more jury dates to a partial day under court arrest or in jail. And in 1999, Judge M. Brooke Murdock fined a missing juror $700.
Those were among the harshest punishments documented in The Baltimore Sun's archives. The philosophy appears to have turned toward positive reinforcement after that, with a quiet room created for waiting jurors in 2001, judges pitching the idea of free sodas with a sandwich purchase in 2004, and the call for volunteers in 2005. In 2008, the Western High School choir sang three songs at the courthouse as part of Juror Appreciation Week.
"I think we should get a little tougher on people that don't come for jury duty," said Frank M. Conaway Sr., clerk of the city's Circuit Court. "But at the same time, there are a lot of people that can't afford to come for jury duty, so it's a tough situation, and then many people sit all day long" and feel that their time is wasted.
Conaway has frequently called for changes to the city system, suggesting that the pay — $15 per day, unless you serve more than five days, when it jumps to $50 — should be higher and the accommodations better.
"We've done some things to the floors and brought in new chairs to make it more comfortable, just trying to make it better for the jurors that come," Conaway said. "It's a tough job for jurors to sit all day like that and only get $15."
Around the country, more jurors have had trouble serving because of the poor economy, Hurley said. While some employers pay their workers' salaries while they're on jury duty, others don't, and many people say they can't afford to give up a day's pay.
Conaway argues that juror compensation could go up if the system cut costs by being more efficient, but Fletcher-Hill said it would be too expensive from any standpoint and noted that Baltimore already pays out more than $1 million to jurors every year. Some jury candidates have been known to show up, collect the cash, and leave without waiting to be called.
'Waste of the day'
On a recent weekday, the potential jurors watched movies on flat-screen TVs ("It's Complicated," starring Meryl Streep played on one set) snacked or slept while they waited to be called.
Cohen said he typically sets up in the quiet room with his laptop, though he laments the $5.95 fee he has to pay for Wi-Fi access. "I think [it] should be free," he said. "At least provide me with something to do."
Cohen has never been selected for a jury in all the times he's been called, and it colors his perception of the process.
"I find it to be a complete waste of the day," he said. "I'm one of the few people that would actually be interested in sitting in a trial ... but because of whatever reason, they don't want to pick me for a jury."
Cohen's sentiment is typical, Hurley said. "People, when they get called to the courthouse and they don't serve on a jury, have a very negative reaction to the whole experience," he said. The opposite is true for those who do serve.
Dennis said there's not much her office can do to control who is chosen and who isn't. But it's safe to say the likelihood that you'll serve goes up if you show up.
Dennis and Fletcher-Hill are counting on the new system's convenience to mitigate some of the burdens associated with jury service. It's already in place in most of the state's court jurisdictions, helping to reduce postage expenses and to simplify the process.
Maryland's jurisdictions, like the rest of the country's, used a two-step summons system for a long time, sending out a qualifying questionnaire first to make sure candidates are eligible to serve, and then a summons after the documents were returned by mail, if they were returned at all.
The new system
With the new system, called "Jury Plus, Next Generation," the summons and survey are mailed as one, and recipients have the option to respond online rather than through the mail. They can also reschedule their service online and use the bar code on their form to check in when they appear for service. That means less work for court employees.
Dennis expects the software to make the summons process more user-friendly for residents and her staff, who are eager to test it out Monday.
"Once you've had the buggy for a while, and somebody comes along with a set of keys, [it's like,] 'Let me take a ride,'" Dennis said.
The state Administrative Office of the Courts paid for the upgrade in Baltimore and in 13 rural systems that had older programs that were difficult to maintain. The technology and its associated training and on-site support, as well as the summons printing, design and management of jury lists, cost about $1.3 million for all of the jurisdictions.
The older systems were "homegrown and not built to be jury management systems," state judiciary spokeswoman Terri Bolling said in an email. "The system now in place will provide the needed functionality and management reports. The remaining jurisdictions had 'modern' jury management systems that were/are not in need of immediate replacement."
About 20,000 Baltimore summonses have gone out for dates through May 14, and the cumulative response rate to the questionnaire is about 60 percent, up from about 20 percent under the old system, Dennis said. She sees that as a good sign, though she and others are still reserving judgment until they see how the system works in practice.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda Heard has a trial coming up this month with five defendants.
"I will need a few hundred jurors" called, she said in an email. "We'll see — after that I might have something to comment on."