ANNAPOLIS- In an effort to ease the pressure on the state’s busiest court systems, Maryland judges asked the General Assembly Thursday to relax restrictions on potential jurors with criminal records and to increase penalties for people who fail to answer a summons to jury duty.
Legislation being proposed by the Maryland Judicial Conference would be the first change in the jury law since the late 1960s.
Currently, anyone convicted of a crime carrying a six-month sentence or a $500 fine is disqualified from jury duty, even if that sentence was suspended. The proposal would ease that restriction to exclude persons convicted of crimes that carry at least a one-year sentence, which is the federal standard.
Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, the chair of the Maryland Judiciary’s Council on Jury Use and Management, said Maryland’s law limiting jury service by convicted criminals is the “most restrictive of any state in the Union” and the proposed new standard would create “a fair cross-section of the community.”
The proposed bill would make anyone whose sentence ended three years prior, no matter what the conviction, eligible for jury service. Sweeney said that judges would still be able to use their discretion to disqualify potential jurors on the basis of their criminal records.
Nancy Dennis, the jury commissioner for Baltimore City, said in and interview that she has to turn away a minimum of five jurors a day, and often many more, because of criminal convictions. On an average day, she said, Baltimore City has to call around 850 people to fill a 450-person need.
The proposed bill would sharply increase the penalties for failure to return juror qualification forms, appear for jury duty or complete jury service that had already begun.
The current penalty for all three offenses is a $100 fine or three days of jail time. Proposed penalties are a $1,000 fine for each offense, 30 days of jail time for failure to return forms, 60 days for failure to appear and 90 days for failing to complete jury service.
Several senators expressed concern about the proposal to increase jail time, asking why the penalty could not be raised to only six or 10 days, but Sweeney and the jury commissioners in attendance stressed the need for a serious penalty.
“Our job is not to fine people or certainly not to incarcerate them, our job is to get compliance,” Sweeney said in an interview. “The goal is to create a message about the seriousness of this.”
Potential jurors often call in and make excuses, Baltimore County Circuit Court jury commissioner Nancy Tilton said in an interview, sometimes opting to pay the $100 fine rather than show up for jury duty. A large part of the problem, she said, is that jurors are now pulled from both voter and driver lists, while most people believe only registered voters are in the pool.
“[The jurors] think it’s optional,” said Dennis.
Still, committee members said the bill would need some work before they can fully endorse it.
“[The bill] probably needs to be tweaked a little. There are a few problems with it,” the committee’s vice chair, Sen. Leo E. Green, D-Prince George’s County, said in an interview. “We’ll look at it and see what we can do.” The proposed bill also includes an exemption for those on active duty in the military, limitations on access to jurors’ personal information and modernized language so that jury records can at some point be kept electronically.