INDIANAPOLIS – Every day downtown, fate walks through the halls of the City-County Building.
The fate of accused criminals lies in the hands of hundreds of potential jurors who are called for duty.
“Our criminal justice system will not function without jurors,” David Powell said, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
Sarah Bangel recently served on a two-day trial in Marion County.
“It was time away from my work, it was time away from my family,” she said.
But the mother of two never thought twice about whether she would show up.
“Once I got there, I felt like it was my right as a citizen to make sure that the facts that were given goes in the direction they should go in,” she said. “And to think there are more trials like that that depend on people like us to make that decision.”
Not everyone, though, thinks like Bangel.
In fact, in Marion County thousands of Hoosiers are failing their duty.
“It’s a big issue,” Powell said. “It’s very expensive.”
According to Marion Superior Court, 43 percent of people summoned showed up for jury duty. And the trend before that has been consistent.
But so far in 2016, only 27 people have responded to their summons, meaning a majority are simply ignoring the law.
|YEAR||PERCENTAGE OF JURORS WHO SHOWED UP|
|Source: Marion Superior Court|
“I wish I had an exact answer,” Hon. Shatrese Flowers said, who oversees the jury pool in Marion County. “This is a concern right now that potential jurors are not appearing and hopefully by doing this, more people will appear.”
Flowers said for a major felony cases, the county is sending 200 summons and expecting approximately 50 potential jurors to show up, adding each week the county needs between 8 and 10 juries.
The effects are widespread and impact courtrooms statewide, experts said.
From delayed trials to wasted taxpayer money, even a contributing factor to overcrowding in county jails.
“Anytime you start that process and can’t complete it, there’s a fairly considerable cost to the community to not completing it,” Powell said. “Oftentimes a judge may shut it down and order more people to appear the next day or the following day. I’ve been in all of those scenarios.”
A potentially more serious cost for Hoosiers that ignore the call is a contempt of court charge. Punishment can range from a fine to several days in jail.
So why are so many risking the consequence?
For starters, most don’t end up like Pastor Ferrell Long from Blackford County.
“And there’s my name,” he said.
Long was front-page news in the local newspaper when he failed to show up for jury duty earlier this summer.
“I was out mowing my lawn a couple weeks later and here comes the county police,” he said.
The sweep was part of an effort by a local judge to send potential jurors a message.
“I think people had been very negligent in showing up for jury duty,” Long said. “And I think he wanted to express the importance of how important it is to show up for jury duty. And I agree with him 100 percent.”
But in Marion County, officers won’t show up at a person’s door.
Instead the county is trying a new approach and sending a second summons, informing the resident they didn’t appear and giving them a new deadline to comply.
But the courts aren’t issuing bench warrants or arrests.
“That’s something we do not want to do in Marion County,” Flowers said. “That’s something that’s kind of extreme and we’d only do that if we absolutely have to.”
The answer, experts said, as to why so many people aren’t showing up may be simple. But the solutions are not.
Take, for example, parking.
There is much less of it downtown near the City-County Building and judges believe that’s a major factor as to why people aren’t showing up.
“Parking was a problem,” Bangel said. “Downtown’s a busy area and it’s limited parking, let alone they tell you not to park at a meter because you don’t know how long you’re going to be there.”
Judges and law enforcement experts are calling for jurors to be paid more, but know that is unlikely in a time of constricted budgets.
“That would be great if we could pay for their parking,” Flowers said. “It would great if we could pay them more, but then that’s a funding issue.”
For now, judges like Flowers are hoping to appeal to the civic nature of Hoosiers.
“We will work with you,” she said. “We will accommodate your schedule.”