Fulton cracking down on jury no-shows

For every person sitting in a Fulton County jury box, there's another person who didn't show up for duty, and it's costing taxpayers thousands of dollars per month.

Almost 50 percent of jurors expected to show up for Superior Court not only don't appear, they don't even call and give a reason, according to Jury Manager Joyce Averils. It could be some of them moved and didn't receive their letter, or it could be they don't want to serve because of work or child care issues, she said.

It could also be that, with the rules of civic duty being sporadically enforced, some Fulton residents have come to view the sheets marked "Jury Summons" less as mandates and more as suggestions.

The judges have had enough of it. During the next few days, the Fulton County Superior Court will mail 20,000 letters warning would-be jurors that if they don't call in and explain or reschedule, they'll be charged with contempt of court.

This would mean a deputy knocking on their door and handing them an order to appear in court, but this time as the accused. It would mean answering to a judge and possibly being fined $500 or put in jail for up to 20 days, the letters say. For those who still can't find their way to the courthouse, it could mean an arrest warrant.

The 20,000 letters going out this week are to people who failed to appear since Jan. 1. Averils said it's possible the Superior Court will go back into 2010 summonses.

Fulton County Superior Court's no-show rate is significantly higher than in other jurisdictions. Cobb County Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron said about 25 percent of the jurors expected to show up don't come in or call, and his tactic is to start calling them immediately and demand they show up. If needed, Charron said he will send a deputy to collect them.

"Most of the time, it's, ‘Oh, my God, I had it on the refrigerator. I forgot about it,' " Charron said.

Gwinnett Jury Manager Karen Moore, who handles both State and Superior courts, said only 9 percent of jurors don't show up or call. She uses follow-up warning letters, deputy-delivered orders and contempt of court hearings.

In Fulton County, Averils and Court Administrator Yolanda Lewis said they were aware of no efforts during the past year to compel jurors into court. Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia Wright said individual judges have been handling the problem their own way.

Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel said Fulton's high poverty rate means a lot of people summoned don't have transportation, or that the $25 per day they'd earn from duty doesn't make up for a lost day's pay or child care costs. That could be why they won't even call.

"Once you're on that radar and you make that call, then you're committing to a later date," Gabel said. "And for a lot of people, that later date isn't going to work either."

In 2010, Averils said, more than 133,000 people were summoned to about 300 trials. Of those that didn't call in for exemptions or deferments, nearly half didn't show up. That rate of return means she has to double up on mailings to fill jury seats, spending more on postage, printing and manpower.

Lewis' office estimates an additional cost of more than $2,000 per month.

Wright acknowledged that the courts may spend more than that on the crackdown, but only at first.

"I think once word gets out that we're serious," she said, "we won't have to spend so much money tracking people down."