Judges: This time, we're serious about jury duty crackdown

Fulton County's Superior Court judges have offered mercy to the 56,000 people who ducked jury duty last year.

So far, fewer than half a dozen of them have stepped forward to receive it, an indicator of how bad the problem is. Fulton's 50 percent juror no-show rate, more than five times the national average, has cost taxpayers an estimated $270,000 in the first three months of this year -- the price of casting a wider net to fill jury boxes.

Tuesday saw the start of "Jury Summons Amnesty Month," a last-ditch effort to avoid using deputies to summon hundreds of people to court per week for contempt hearings.

But since court officials announced the program last week, only four people have called to set a new date, Jury Services Manager Silvia Gaines said. Not one person came to the amnesty desk set up outside the courthouse jury room on Tuesday.

If this keeps up, the judges say they're prepared to do what they've never done and pursue criminal charges en masse, starting June 1, against those who ignore their legally required civic duty. Empty threats in the past may have only compounded the problem.

"We're not crying wolf this time," Chief Judge Cynthia Wright said. "If you don't come to us voluntarily, we have the power to draft you."

No-shows have plagued Fulton for more than a decade, and for years the judges did little to reel them in. A jury summons has become a toothless invitation for many residents, and that's something Wright and her colleagues have been trying to rectify.

While other counties take immediate action against people who fail to show up or call ahead with an excuse, Fulton's solution has been to multiply the number of summonses mailed while asking more of those willing to serve. Jurors used to get a three-year reprieve before they could be called again, but that's been cut to 18 months.

Postage to bring in jurors should cost $5,000 per month, Gaines said. In the first three months of this year, Fulton spent about $111,000, she said.

It takes 6,500 summonses to bring in the required 1,300 jurors needed for an average week. That often yields more jurors than needed, and they're paid $25 per day. Fulton spent almost $350,000 compensating jurors during the first quarter of 2012, which Gaines said is double what the cost should be.

Southwest Atlanta resident Pam Bates spent more than two hours at the courthouse Tuesday waiting to serve on a jury, only to be sent home when the defendant took a plea deal. She said she can't fathom shirking jury duty. People accused of crimes have a right to be judged by their peers, and that's compromised when jurors don't show, she said.

"I think that's irresponsible," Bates said.

Jury experts say Fulton's problem also can be attributed to its urban character -- having a more transient population and many low-income residents who can't afford to miss work, pay for child care or find transportation.

The county's failure-to-appear rate is excessive by any standard, though. The national average is about 9 percent, and about 15 percent for places of half a million people or more, said Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of the National Center for State Courts' Center for Jury Studies.

Surrounding metro Atlanta counties have rates ranging from 5 to 33 percent. Last year's rate was 9 percent in Gwinnett and 16 percent in DeKalb, jury managers report.

Cobb County's rate is up from 25 percent to around 40 percent this year, Court Administrator Tom Charron said, mostly because the jury pool list is more than a year old and contains bad addresses. The state will start compiling jury lists on July 1, under a new law.

When prospective jurors don't show up in Cobb, Charron said, the Sheriff's Office runs them down by phone or by showing up at their doors.

"It sends a bad message if you do not hold people accountable," he said.

Last year, Fulton County mailed nearly 30,000 letters warning would-be jurors that if they didn't call in and explain or reschedule, they could be charged with contempt of court, punishable by a fine of up to $500 or 20 days in jail.

After the first batch of letters went out, Court Administrator Yolanda Lewis said Phase 2 would likely start in July, with deputies showing up on doorsteps with orders to appear before a judge.

But there was no execution plan. Only 30 percent of the letters yielded responses.

"We were hopeful that by getting the word out, it would decrease the number of people not showing up," Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams said. "But it didn't happen that way."

This time, the judges have plans to fit contempt hearings into their schedules, Adams said. The Fulton County Sheriff's Office has a plan to work no-shows' addresses into the routes of deputies who serve warrants and civil papers, delivering 200 orders to appear per week, Lt. Col. Peter Andreson said.

Hannaford-Agor said this is the first she's heard of a court offering an amnesty month. To undo a culture of apathy, people in the jury pool must get the message that judges are serious about enforcement, she said.

"You can't bluff on this stuff," Hannaford-Agor said, "because people hear about it when something actually happens."

Want to fess up?

If you’re one of the 56,000 people who dodged jury duty in Fulton County last year, throughout “Jury Summons Amnesty Month” you can avoid penalties by contacting the court, setting a new date and signing an affidavit promising to show up this time.

The Fulton County Courthouse, at 185 Central Ave. S.W., downtown Atlanta, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The amnesty desk is on the seventh floor outside Room T-7100. Bring identification.

To contact Jury Services, call 404-612-4600 or write to info.juryservices@fultoncountyga.gov.

For more information, go to FultonCourt.org.