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Jury-fee donation program is a hit in suburbs

Thousands of jurors in Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties have delivered their verdicts on a program that permits them to give their daily stipends to charity: They like it.

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Thousands of jurors in Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties have delivered their verdicts on a program that permits them to give their daily stipends to charity: They like it.

Now, Chester County residents who serve as jurors are getting the same option.

Under a program that began in September, they can give their $9 daily stipends to three local agencies. Similar programs in the three other counties have raised more than $100,000 annually.

A change in the software program that is used to pay jurors allowed Chester County to easily allocate the money to local agencies, said Rebecca Webb, chief deputy court administrator.

Already, close to 400 jurors have donated to the Chester County Library, Chester County Parks, and the Pocopson Home, the county's long-term health-care facility, Webb said.

County jurors statewide receive $9 stipends for each of the first three days and $25 for each subsequent day. Mileage is reimbursed at 17 cents per mile.

In Philadelphia, which has no formal donation program, jurors who want to make a contribution are encouraged to endorse the check and send it to their favorite organization, said Patrick Martin, supervisor of the Jury Commission.

In New Jersey, state law gives all jurors the option of donating the $5 daily stipend, which goes up to $35 on the fourth day of service.

Montgomery County has had a program for five years. In the last two years, jurors have donated nearly $40,000 to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Women's Center of Montgomery County, and the Montgomery County Child Advocacy Project, said Marge Cesare, first deputy on the jury board.

The Bucks County program, which is in its first year, has raised about $30,000, said Christopher Edwards, county spokesman. The recipients are the Bucks County Housing group, the crisis shelter A Woman's Place, and the Bucks County Children's Advocacy Center, Edwards said.

Delaware County was the first in the area to implement a juror donation program.

Since 2003, roughly 75,000 jurors have donated more than $770,000 to five agencies, said Gerald C. Montella, court administrator. The donations are tax deductible.

"I'm looking forward to when we get to a million," said Montella, the program's architect.

In 2000, Montella noticed that jurors were not cashing the small checks. He read about donation programs in Texas and Allegheny County, and decided to survey local jurors to gauge interest. With support from the county and courts - and some help from the IT department - the program was launched.

The goal has always been to fund programs that would benefit children in the county, Montella said.

Officials chose five groups - Children and Youth Services; the Domestic Abuse Project for children; the Hero Scholarship Fund, which gives scholarships to the children of fallen police and firefighters; Operation Warm, which gives winter coats to children; and CASA Youth Advocates, which provides court-appointed advocates for children.

The money has gone for scholarships, to supply duffel bags and toiletries to children entering the foster-care system; winter coats and other clothing for at-risk children; counseling; and other programs.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Delaware County held a one-time campaign to raise funds for UNICEF, which provided victims health care, clean water, food, and other emergency relief. In three months, more than 470 jurors donated about $6,100 to the effort.

Reaction from jurors has been favorable, said Montella, who says he hasn't had one complaint since the program began.

"The success of the program is the jurors," Montella said.