Jury-summons scofflaws, be on notice. The penalty-free ride for ducking jury duty is over.
Los Angeles County courts this week began enforcing a rule that the vast majority of county residents simply ignore: Serving on a jury is mandatory if you're eligible.
Under a new, get-tougher policy, potential jurors who fail to respond to summonses will first face a hearing and then a $1,500 fine.
The change comes at a time when the need for larger jury pools is acute but the public's willingness to fulfill that need is dismally low, despite a clamor for an improved jury system in the wake of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
This year, fewer than half of the 4 million county residents who receive juror eligibility questionnaires are expected to respond to them. Of those, only about 390,000--9% of those solicited--will eventually serve on a jury, according to Presiding Superior Court Judge Gary Klausner.
In Orange County, the problem is less severe, though still troublesome for courts. About 25% of Orange County residents called to jury duty each year fail to respond, according to Sandy Vale, the county's jury services manager.
Orange County rarely tracks down individuals who don't appear when summoned, even though it has the power to impose $1,000 fines upon them, Vale said.
Previously, Los Angeles County did not pursue people who ignored questionnaires. Under the new procedure, however, anyone who fails to respond to a questionnaire will automatically be deemed eligible for jury duty and sent a summons. Failure to respond to the summons will result in a writ from the court requiring service or an appearance at a hearing.
The $1,500 fine kicks in if a request for an excuse is denied and the potential juror still refuses to serve.
"We're trying to make it as accommodating as possible," Klausner said. "But you are going to serve, be excused or fined. Those are the only three options. Once [the questionnaire] goes out, we're not going to let it go.
"What bothers me are the people who just ignore the summonses. Many times they are the same ones who complain about juries not being representative," Klausner said.
The widespread knowledge that the county did not pursue potential jurors beyond the initial questionnaire contributed to the low rate of service. Aggravating the problem was an antiquated phone system and low staffing in the court's jury service office that at one point allowed 450,000 pieces of mail--some of them responses to questionnaires--to go unprocessed.
The office's telephone system until recently was so inadequate that 95% of calls from the public went unanswered, meaning someone who tried to ask a question by phone about jury duty could dial nonstop for days and not get an answer.
A committee of judges began looking at the problems two years ago and zeroed in on what Superior Court Judge Judith C. Chirlin, a committee member, called "hard-core potentials"--hundreds of thousands of people who repeatedly refuse to respond to the call for jury service.
"We looked at the statistics and we said, 'Something has to be done,' " Klausner said. The small minority who were serving on juries "kept getting hit [for service] time and time again."
The new sanction for failure to respond to jury notices is part of a larger effort by county judges to make jury service more palatable to the willing and to "spread the obligation evenly rather than dumping on the people who are conscientious," Klausner said.
In the past few months, the courts have quietly instituted other, smaller changes, such as installing a clearly visible, overhead courthouse directory outside the elevators in the lobby of the Downtown Criminal Courts Building.
Before, it was not uncommon to see people milling in the lobby, juror summonses in hand, trying to figure out where they should be.
Chirlin credited Klausner, who became presiding judge in January, with focusing attention on basic inadequacies in the county's jury system that could be remedied without legislative action. She also credited the Simpson trial, which she said "brought the issue of how we deal with juries to the public attention and created an atmosphere where people are more receptive to changes."
Klausner said the state's "three strikes" law, which requires a sentence of 25 years to life for a third conviction for serious felonies, has brought greater urgency to jury service issues.
Because of the stiff penalties, more defendants than ever are refusing to plea-bargain and demanding jury trials, nearly overwhelming the criminal justice system. Moreover, in "three strikes" trials, each side gets 20 peremptory challenges, allowing lawyers to remove 20 potential jurors from a case without giving a reason.
"That means you have to have larger jury pools to start with," Klausner said.
Some judges have had to wait hours or sometimes days to begin a trial because there was no jury pool large enough, he said.
Klausner, along with Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, supports an effort by some jury reformists to reduce the number of peremptory challenges, an action that would require changes in laws.
Klausner said the county jury services office installed a new computerized phone system a few months ago. It now answers every incoming call, and freed-up personnel have been able to reduce the backlog of unprocessed mail by two-thirds.
In addition, at Klausner's direction, judges meet routinely with former jurors to get ideas about what works and what doesn't.
The court is also studying ways to rewrite instructions on the law judges give to juries after testimony ends in a case.
Klausner said the instructions need to be put in plain English instead of legalese so "they can be understood by normal people and not just the court of appeals."
Times staff writer Martin Miller contributed to this story.