FEW PEOPLE can turn down well-earned money. But that is exactly what Howard countians might consider doing when called to jury duty in Circuit Court. Those able to spare the $10 or $20 in juror pay -- especially people whose employers pay them for time spent on jury duty -- may want to contribute to foster care services.
Before the program was launched, a survey reported that half of jurors would be willing to donate their fees to help foster children. But only about 25 percent of residents called for jury duty have forfeited their pay so far and only about $3,000 has been collected.
But the money raised so far already is making a difference in small, yet meaningful ways. The donations have enabled four children to join a bowling league and will pay for a large group of children to see "The Nutcracker" in Baltimore, experiences that will enrich the lives of young people who have faced more difficulties than most county children.
We hope a planned publicity campaign, which includes posters and brochures in county buildings, will boost participation. Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray also wants to send questionnaires to the homes of prospective jurors, with a box indicating whether they want to donate.
Mr. Gray, who proposed the program, modeled it after a similar one in Dallas County, Texas, that has raised $1.4 million for disadvantaged and at-risk youth there since 1989. The initiative began in Texas because many jurors were turning down the fees, saying they were serving as jurors as a public service. This also happens in Howard County, says Steven T. Merson, the Circuit Court's jury commissioner. Mr. Merson says most jurors follow others when signing up for the program "like a chain reaction."
Greater public awareness of this program would at least educate people about this option before they are called. Currently, jurors make spot decisions about the program, receiving information about it when signing up for duty. More time is needed for jurors to be certain their money is going to a worthy cause and to get answers to questions they might have about the program. Not all jurors can afford to forfeit their fees, but those able to spare the cash can painlessly put it to good use.
Pub Date: 12/17/96