As early as today, the first of thousands of Fulton County residents will be greeted by sheriff’s deputies at their doors and could face contempt-of-court charges for skipping jury duty.
The Superior Court judges are following through on threats to punish no-shows. On Thursday the sheriff’s office received its first batch of orders summoning scofflaws to court, and deputies will hit the streets today, a spokeswoman said.
It’s the launch of a sweeping crackdown on those ducking their civic responsibility, an infraction that has long been ignored in Fulton. After sending stacks of warning letters, the judges gave offenders all of May to stop by the courthouse, ’fess up and set a new court date.
In all, 25,000 have responded, putting a sizable dent in the problem, but some 8,700 remain in the bull’s-eye.
Now comes the reckoning.
Some experts suspect Fulton has been working with a flawed juror list. A new statewide jury pool launching next month could help, but the judges are also trying to reverse a culture of apathy toward summonses, brought on by more than a decade of lax enforcement.
The county’s failure-to-appear rate, at times as high has 50 percent, is far worse than those of surrounding counties, and well above the national average of 9 percent no-shows.
When a high number of people don’t show up for jury service, it means the jury pool is only partially represented in courtrooms, which compromises defendants’ constitutional right to be tried by a jury of their peers. It’s led to charges throughout the country of stacked jury boxes, lacking appropriate representation of minorities, low-income residents and young adults, among other groups.
The problem is also costly to residents. Because so few respond, the county has compensated by mailing far more summonses than should be necessary, costing thousands of dollars more per month in postage. In the first three months of this year, Fulton spent about $111,000, Jury Services Manager Silvia Gaines said in May.
Those who serve now get called back more often — after 18 months instead of a three-year reprieve.
There have been at least five cases this year where the court didn’t have enough jurors show up, but thanks to defendants taking plea deals, no cases were delayed.
The crackdown could reveal the truth behind the numbers. Fulton hasn’t previously gone looking for jury duty dodgers, as other counties often do, so it’s likely to find a slew of people on its list who have died or moved away, experts say.
“To just keep sending things in the mail when they’re not responding, I don’t know how you can expect anything else,” attorney and jury consultant Denise de La Rue said.
There were 56,000 cases of people not showing up for duty in 2011, according to figures provided by the county.
The Superior Court’s enforcement effort started with about 33,700 letters last year warning no-shows that if they didn’t call in and reschedule, they could face criminal charges.
During May, only 33 people showed up in person at the courthouse to accept the last-chance “amnesty month” offer, but the Court Administrator’s office says about 25,000 total have responded since last year.
Of those responding, at least a fifth of them have been disqualified, including people who either moved out of the county, aren’t American citizens or are age 70 or older.
“Amnesty month” was a last-ditch effort to avoid hauling the remaining slackers into court.
Superior Court Administrator Yolanda Lewis said everyone still being pursued has been run through the National Change of Address registry.
“That’s one good thing about it,” said Fulton Sheriff’s Lt. Col. Peter Andreson, who is overseeing the plan to deliver orders. “We might find out more information about the system.”
The orders will tell holdouts to appear in court and explain themselves, or be arrested. If convicted of contempt of court, they could face fines of up to $500 and up to 20 days in jail.
Sheriff’s deputies will be knocking on doors at the expected rate of about 200 a week.
The prospect was enough to jolt south Fulton resident Mary Criss into action last week. She skipped jury duty early last year while recovering from knee surgery, leaving a voicemail with the court explaining her situation.
“I never heard any more about it, so I don’t know if I got excused or not,” said Criss, who reported to the amnesty desk on the last day of May. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
The national failure-to-appear rate is about 9 percent, and about 15 percent for places of half a million people or more, according to the director of the National Center for State Courts’ Center for Jury Studies.
Last year’s rate was 9 percent in Gwinnett County and 16 percent in DeKalb, jury managers report. Cobb’s rate is at 40 percent this year, attributed to bad addresses in an old database. Cobb isn’t planning to update that database because the state will start compiling jury lists next month.
That’s being done under a law designed to stop forced balancing, when court clerks adjust jury lists so racial and gender demographics match the most recent census. The private company handling Fulton’s list operates similarly, according to the county.
The census is taken only once every 10 years, and populations shift. Judges and other court officials thought the practice could be making disparities even worse.
A centralized list, annually updated with driver records, voter registration lists and local vital records, could also address the problem that jury consultants have long suspected exists in Fulton — an inordinate amount of bad addresses. There’s evidence that apathy alone isn’t to blame.
“You would think, from the numbers, there’s got to be something systematic going on,” said mathematician and jury consultant Jeffrey Martin.
State Court Administrator Cicely Barber, who uses the same jury data as Superior Court, said she’s found so many of the addresses and names to be invalid, including foreign citizens and dead people, that she declined to take part in amnesty month. She’s waiting for the state system to come on line.
The new jury list will be produced by the same company that has been compiling Fulton’s — Lexington, Ky.-based ACS Government Systems. ACS won a $49,000 per year contract to produce the statewide list.
The current system led Jeff Bragg, a retired high school social studies teacher, to throw away two summonses he received from Fulton County recently. One was sent to a man who moved out of his house in 1994. The other was for a doctor who lived there more than two decades earlier.
Even more odd is that he lives in unincorporated DeKalb County, near Fernbank Science Center. He said he tried calling to report the error, but he couldn’t get through to a live person.
“I sure hope they haven’t sold a lien on our house because we haven’t paid our Fulton County taxes,” Bragg said, joking.
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