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Jury duty indifference may have reached a new low in Los Angeles County, where not only do people ignore calls to jury duty, they don’t even respond to summonses carrying a threat of a fine. The county sent out 2.9 million jury summonses in the last fiscal year and heard back from about 25 percent of the recipients — many of whom were disqualified by phone, mainly because of lack of citizenship. From 2003 to the present, fewer than 10 percent of the people answered a summons for a hearing on why they didn’t show up for jury duty in the first place — even under threats of a fine. And court statistics show that in the first six months of 2004, the courts assessed $940,000 in no-show fines, which are usually levied at $250 per scofflaw juror. Even when people make it to the scofflaw hearings, the problems don’t end. Of those who show — at a recent hearing 15 out of 177 — just one qualified. Many are disqualified on the citizenship issue. In 2003, Los Angeles County began sending 10,000 summonses per month to people who failed to respond to three juror duty letters. Those summonses tell recipients that they face fines of at least $250 and up to $1,500 for not showing up, and that they will be fined if they fail to respond to the current summonses. Judges have been holding “scofflaw juror” hearings Thursday afternoons at the 12 courthouses in the county since last year. The results mirror those of the working class community of Long Beach, whether the hearings are held in South Central (Compton), Burbank or posh Santa Monica. With between 175 and 250 people ordered to appear on the scofflaw calendar per court session, an average of about 10 to 15 people show up, according to Pat Kelly, the public information officer for the courts. Most of those who are qualified agree to serve, she said, and their fines are set aside. Those who don’t show up are fined, and the fines are turned over to collection agencies. “This is not a revenue-producing program,” Kelly said. “It’s meant to get people to do their duty and serve on juries.” Los Angeles, like all of California and much of the nation, has tried reforms, including going to a one day/one trial system. Jurors receive $15 a day and free bus passes, as well as a mileage stipend. But courthouse parking alone will eat up more than half the money. While the American Bar Association and many larger counties are using carrots — and some sticks — to try to boost jury service, some attorneys think the courts have missed the point. “It seems to me that the courts and the lawyers have the greatest blame in people not wanting jury duty, since the conditions are horrible and the process ignores the fact that most people’s work and child care situations are precarious,” said Tom Girardi, a plaintiff attorney at Los Angeles’ Girardi & Keese. “The courts abuse people’s time and the lawyers make it boring.” Jury researchers, including Tom Bernthal of Jury Insight in Los Angeles, said L.A. juries are composed mostly of retired people and government employees, who have job and wage protection during their service. No-show rates are much higher in large urban areas where potential jurors have less of a relationship with their employers and a weaker support system, he said. “The no-shows are disproportionately Hispanic, young and low income,” Bernthal said. “The reforms seem nice, but I haven’t seen anyone succeed at getting more jurors, and you can’t get public opinion on your side to go after jurors. Los Angeles isn’t the only place hauling jurors into court. In Riverside County, as well as Maricopa County, Ariz., the scofflaw summonses are served by a deputy sheriff — and the number who show up in court for the fining hearing is higher. Sharon Arkin, the president-elect of the Consumer Attorneys of California, said plaintiff attorneys are extremely worried about the lack of diversity in the jury pool. “You lose the community of experience the jury system is supposed to be about, the range of views,” she said. “For plaintiffs’ lawyers, the problem is so extreme that we’ve talked about sponsoring a bill to force jury reforms.” Marty Graham wrote this article for The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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