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Report: More than one-third ignore Philly jury duty summonses

More than one-third of Philadelphia residents called for jury service don't bother to respond, taxing a system already struggling to process hundreds of cases a year, a new study finds.

The Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, at 1301 Filbert St. in Philadelphia.
The Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, at 1301 Filbert St. in Philadelphia.Read moreFile Photograph

More than one-third of Philadelphians don't bother to respond to calls for jury service, taxing a system already struggling to process hundreds of cases a year, a new study finds.

"Depending upon the year, between 36 percent and 42 percent of Philadelphia residents who are mailed a summons fail to respond," says the report released Wednesday by the First Judicial District, the Philadelphia court system. "This high nonresponse rate raises a potential threat to the court's ability to provide sufficient panels of would-be jurors for civil and criminal trials and results in the court's excessive reliance on those who do fulfill their civic duty by responding to the summons for jury service."

The percentage who do not respond equates to about 200,000 people, the report found.

To be eligible for jury duty, a person must be a Philadelphia resident, a U.S. citizen, and an adult who can read, write, and speak English, and cannot have been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony that could carry a punishment of more than a year behind bars.

"We had the report done because we were really concerned about the number of people who were not responding," Philadelphia Common Pleas Court President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper said Wednesday.

The report resulted from an 18-month review process conducted by the First Judicial District's Juror Participation Initiative Committee, a blue-ribbon panel of legal professionals and community leaders chaired by Lynn Marks, former executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

The committee proposed various ways to increase juror participation, including research on possibly relaxing state laws that restrict eligibility based on criminal history. It also suggested ways to reduce hardships to serving, such as increasing compensation to jurors for missing work and providing parking vouchers or transportation discounts.

The panel also recommended increasing educational outreach, in particular to Philadelphia neighborhoods with the lowest jury-duty response rates, including parts of North Philadelphia (zip codes 19121 and 19132), University City and West Philadelphia (zip codes 19104 and 19139), and Southwest Philadelphia (zip codes 19142 and 19143).

"Misinformation of jury service and skepticism and distrust of government can undermine an accurate and positive view of jury service," Marks said Wednesday. "Education is key, both for adults and for youths. The most effective way to educate school students is through the School District."

One misconception, she said, is that "people often think that a trial is going to last a month or weeks." But one-day trials or those that last just a few days are common, she said.

"Sometimes people think they're not smart enough," Marks added, but it's important that "people believe regardless of their education, background, or race, or ethnicity" that they can serve on a jury.

Another misconception, she said, is that jury duty can't be rescheduled. "When you get your summons and you really can't make that date, rather than throw it in the trash can, ask for a different date," she said.

Marks said she thinks people who have been convicted of crimes punishable by more than a year should be able to serve on juries after they have served their time. Some people — disproportionately African American men — who have served prison time after being convicted of crimes decades ago "could make excellent jurors," she said.

"The problem isn't that we don't have enough people to sit on juries, but that we have the same people sitting on juries," said Marks.

Woods-Skipper said she serves on a standing committee of Philadelphia judges that "will be going through the report and prioritizing" what can be carried out under budgetary constraints.

She stressed that some suggestions in the report — including whether convicts who served their time should be allowed to serve on juries — would not be a decision implemented by judges, but would have to be taken up by the state legislature.

Statewide, jurors are compensated $9 a day for jury duty; that amount increases to $25 a day after the third day of service.

Based on court data, 548,900 jury summonses were mailed to Philadelphians in 2016. Of those, 190,024 people — or 35 percent — did not respond or report for jury service. In the surrounding Pennsylvania counties, only Delaware County had a higher nonresponse rate, 44.9 percent that year, the report found. Other counties in the state's Southeast region showed significantly higher response rates.

"The problem of poor juror response rates is not limited to Philadelphia," the report says. Other major cities, including Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Denver have tried to combat the problem by operating a "show cause" hearing or "Scofflaw Court." Although such hearings may provide a short-lived uptick in the number of people who respond to jury summonses, they "are generally a temporary solution to a persistent problem," the report says.

According to state law, failure to appear for jury duty is punishable by a fine not exceeding $500 or imprisonment of no more than 10 days. Periodic attempts in Philadelphia to punish people who failed to appear for jury duty through a Scofflaw Court had "mixed" effectiveness, and in the long run the compliance rate did not increase, the report found.

Dan Rendine, who has served as Philadelphia jury commissioner since 2011, said an effort to restart Scofflaw Court about five years ago led to "an initial bump" in the numbers of people who responded to their jury summonses, "but it didn't last long."

"Considering the costs, it wasn't worth doing Scofflaw Court and the judges were not keen on punishing individuals to come to jury duty. It's not a very pleasant process," Rendine said.

If a prospective juror ignores a summons, a reminder postcard is sent after two weeks, he said.

"If they don't report, they stay on our rolls and will be summoned randomly sometime in the future," he said.

Residents, asked in an informal survey last year why they failed to respond to jury duty, gave the following reasons: issues with their jobs, scheduling conflicts, low juror pay, forgetting or misplacing their summonses, a lack of trust in the criminal justice system, and financial or familial hardship.

Jurors are selected from voter registration and Bureau of Motor Vehicles lists.

After serving for one or two days, a juror is exempt from further service for a year; after three days or more, the exemption is for three years, Rendine said.