Los Angeles County court officials announced Tuesday that they will adopt a system requiring most prospective jurors to report for jury duty only for one day unless they are selected for a trial.
The change, to begin in May and be in effect in all courts by the end of 1999, represents a reversal of an earlier decision by county court authorities. It will give citizens significant relief from what is widely regarded as the most onerous of civic responsibilities.
Court officials, led by Presiding Superior Court Judge Robert W. Parkin, also announced they are considering some dramatic changes that would let jurors ask questions during trials and let them discuss the case among themselves before the trial ends. They said they also will push for raising the per diem from $5--the lowest juror pay in the country--to $20.
While "one day or one trial" systems are becoming more common across the country, the other proposals are rare, one expert said.
"I am not aware of any court system that allows jurors to discuss the case before the trial ends," said David Davis, senior vice president for DecisionQuest, a jury and trial research firm that studies courts nationwide. Very few allow them to ask questions, he added.
The actions respond to growing discontent with jury duty and to declining confidence in the judiciary, which many attribute to people's experience with jury service.
Currently, jury duty requires people to be available in person or on call for 10 days or to serve on one trial per year.
Prospective jurors serving in the downtown Los Angeles courthouse applauded the proposal Tuesday.
"The [current] system really needs some reworking," said Barry Grady, who praised the proposal during his courthouse lunch break Tuesday. "You're being sent around from location to location, waiting. It's sort of a bovine feeling, a cattle call."
The new jury selection system will initially start in May in only five courts--Superior and Municipal Courts in Pasadena and Pomona and Municipal Court in Monrovia--and will involve less than 10% of the total number of jurors countywide.
Over the following seven months, the remaining 36 court sites will be brought into the system.
There will be some drawbacks. Because the system will require jury administrators to summon three times as many jurors as they do now, some people may get summoned more often. And if prospective jurors are not selected for a trial when they report, they will have to remain on call for the next three to five days.
Tuesday's announcement comes less than three months after court officials said the idea--mandated for all state courts by the Legislature--would be impossible. The sheer size of the Los Angeles County jury system, which uses 7,500 jurors per week, would prevent administrators from adopting the proposal, they said.
"We just took a look at it and decided we are going to make it happen," Parkin said.
The law, passed earlier this year, requires courts to adopt the system by 2000 unless a county can show good reasons for being exempt.
In September, the county's jury services manager, Gloria Gomez, said the county would ask for the exemption because of the cost and because the 6.5 million citizens who are qualified for duty are not enough to meet the new system's voracious appetite.
But Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti objected to the exemption request. And pressure for reform increased last month when a county bar association survey of judges, court staff, lawyers, police officers and former jurors found discontent with jury service.
The survey found that more than one-fourth of the former jurors' opinions of the court system were negative. The only group expressing greater discontent with the system was law enforcement officers.
Surveys show that jurors complain most about the length of time they have to serve, waiting time in hallways or in the jury assembly room, shuttling from one courtroom to another without being selected for a jury and the lack of amenities in assembly rooms.
"On trials, you learn a lot. Other than that, forget it--it's hell sitting in that room, just waiting," said Bob Ruiz, a juror on lunch break Tuesday at the downtown Criminal Courts Building. "It's ridiculous. I'd rather be at work."
Another juror, who had been summoned four times but never selected, said: "Use me or let me go."
Under the new system, about 75% of the people summoned will be selected for jury duty, said G. Thomas Munsterman, director of the Center for Jury Studies of Arlington, Va., who is working with Los Angeles to develop its new system. That means they will serve about six days.
When people actually serve on a jury, they cannot be recalled again for at least one year. If they are not selected for a trial, they are eligible for another summons later.
Munsterman said the new system will not require calling people for service more often if administrators can increase the response rate to summonses. Right now, about half respond. He said he expected that to rise under the new system.