Richmond County jury system to change

Research shows that courts across the country are cracking down on jurors who do not answer a summons.

 

Fulton County, Ga., for instance, sent out 20,000 letters in May to their no-shows; several counties in South Florida have a similar no-show rate of about 50 percent.

Not so in Richmond County.

Jury Clerk Joan Shackelford hasn't calculated the percentage of unanswered summonses for several years, but says it's "well below 10 percent."

"People are very good about responding," she said.

Shackelford credits her high attendance rate to Georgia's method of prequalifying jurors. The 20,000 Richmond County jurors are chosen by an appointed board of jury commissioners, who pick the jurors based on their responses to a jury duty questionnaire.

That's going to change soon, however. A bill signed into law this year brings Georgia in line with the rest of the United States by qualifying jurors on a statewide basis. Instead of each county picking jurors, the state will pool the names of all registered voters and those holding a driver's license or identification card. That database will be culled of convicted felons and those who have moved out of state.

The particulars of how that will work are still being drafted by the Georgia Supreme Court. The Council of Superior Court Clerks is simultaneously choosing contractors to create the database.

How long that will take is unclear, said Henry County State Court Chief Judge Ben Studdard, who served on the Jury Composition Committee that helped draft the law.

The advantage of the new system is that instead of 159 lists created by Georgia's counties, one master list will be used to widen the jury pool, Studdard said.

Studdard expects that the master list will boost accuracy at a reduced cost to counties.

Under the current system, Richmond County jury commissioners sort the list not just with qualities such as age, but with subjective qualities such as being of sound mind and being an upright citizen.

Collectively, the box represents the demographic makeup of the county as shown by the latest census information. For example, the 2010 census shows Richmond County's population being 39.7 percent white and 54.2 percent black. Shackelford uses census data only for those over 18 years old.

The jury box would represent that. If a juror becomes ineligible -- such as a white male moving away -- then another white male is substituted in his place. Shackelford said this maintains the integrity of the jury box and keeps the no-show rate down.

Studdard said that method excludes potential jurors because someone with the same demographic background is already in the box.

Shackelford declined to comment on the impact of the law locally until it's fully implemented.

The responsiveness of the community to jury summonses is a testament to its "wonderful citizens," she said. Shackelford acknowledges that there will always be no-shows regardless of what system is in place. But most of the local no-shows are due to people moving out of the county, with a few due to illness or forgetfulness. An even smaller number of unanswered summonses is due to blatant disregard.

Shackelford cautions that residents will not get away with skipping their duty.

"I'll work with people," she said, to find a solution. "But if you're a no-show, I find out why."

Qualifying will be statewide

The 20,000 Richmond County jurors are prequalified by an appointed board of jury commissioners, who pick the jurors based on their responses to a jury duty questionnaire.

However, that will change. A new bill signed into law this year brings Georgia in line with the rest of the United States by qualifying jurors on a statewide basis. Instead of each county picking jurors, the state will pool the names of all registered voters and those holding a driver's license or identification card. That database will be culled of felons and those who have moved out of state.