Ditching duty: 70 percent of summoned jurors never show in Harris County

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by Courtney Zubowski / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on July 19, 2012 at 10:00 PM

Updated Friday, Jul 20 at 4:49 PM

HOUSTON—It’s your civic duty, but thousands of people in Harris County are ditching jury duty and getting away with it at a cost to taxpayers, according to the Harris County District Clerk.

“It is a problem,” said Chris Daniel. “If we had a 100-percent show up, participation in jury service, we would be saving well over a million dollars in taxpayer dollars.”

Last year, of the more than 497,000 people summoned, only a quarter of them showed up. About 21 percent of the summons sent out were returned to sender, 24 percent of the people were excused, and 30 percent were no-shows.

On one of the days KHOU 11 News sat in the Harris County Jury Assembly Room, 600 people were summoned to appear at the downtown Houston complex. Only 200 people showed up. Apparently, many of them blew it off.

And Daniel says not only is the no-show rate costing taxpayers money, but also time.

“The wheel would last not three years, or two-point-five years, the wheel would last roughly six years to eight years, which means that you as a citizen, as a taxpayer, would not be called nearly quite so often,” said Daniel.

Expert Greg Hurley studies juries at the National Center for State Courts. KHOU 11 News showed him the Harris County "no-show numbers."

“It’s higher than the national average. It’s significantly higher and that’s true,” said Hurley. “It’s certainly something Harris County probably wants to look at.”

According to Hurley, the national average for the failure-to-appear rate in urban counties that have more than 500,000 people is about 15 percent.

As for the consequences for skipping out on jury duty, such as tickets, thousand-dollar fines, and jail,  some say they’re not being seriously enforced.

“For a long time this has been a political hot potato,” said Daniel.

Daniel says there hasn’t been a major enforcement effort since 1995. It’s something he blames on the county’s judges who enforce the law.

“If you’re an elected judge, you don’t want to upset the voters by holding them in contempt by not showing up for jury service,” said Daniel.

KHOU 11 News: “So judges aren’t enforcing jury duty because they don’t want to lose the bench?”

Chris Daniel: “I’m speculating that that has traditionally been the case.”

Judge Ken Wise of the 334th District Court is the administrative judge for Harris County.

“That’s absurd,” he told KHOU 11 News. “If somebody were to say that, that presumes that judges make decisions based on politics and I can tell you the 59 district judges of Harris County do not make decisions based on politics.”

Wise pointed to the District Clerk’s office.

“Keep in mind the District Clerk is responsible for summoning jurors,” he said.

KHOU 11 News: “But any enforcement?”

Judge Ken Wise: “Right, that little piece of it would necessitate judge involvement.”

We asked the judge what would happen if we didn’t show up to jury duty.

Judge Ken Wise: “You are subject to contempt of court. Now whether somebody brings a motion to hold you in contempt, that’s a different question.”

KHOU 11 News: “When was the last time that happened in Harris County?”

Judge Ken Wise: “I don’t know. I don’t know. We have 59 District courts. I have no idea.”

Wise believes it would take a tremendous amount of resources and money to go after delinquent jurors because the District Clerk’s Office uses first-class mail instead of certified mail to send out summons, which saves $4 a letter.

“What some courts have done is tried mailing certified letters to jurors that failed to appear requiring those people to appear at specific dates and times and explain to the judges why they didn’t appear for jury service,” said Hurley.  “Some jurisdictions mail that type of letter to every person that does not appear, while others take a smaller group and use that as a mechanism to increase public awareness that would be done with the help of the media publicizing these types of hearings which are typically called ‘show cause hearings.’”

Wise told KHOU that he and the other judges will discuss ideas to improve the numbers at their meeting next month and will be waiting for a proposal from the District Clerk on how they can work together.

“A  piece like this is perfect opportunity for us to bring this issue to the front of our discussion and try to design an effective way to integrate this into our ways to attempt to get people to show up for jury duty,” Wise said.

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