HUNTSVILLE, Ala (WHNT) - Jurors play a critical role in our criminal justice system. But there's a troubling trend -- people called to serve on a jury are not showing up.
WHNT News 19 launched a Taking Action Investigation months ago, digging into numbers in Madison County where it appears to be worse than other parts of the Tennessee Valley. For the last several months, nearly 40 percent of the people summoned by court officials to serve jury duty never showed up to the Madison County Courthouse. The problem is costing you, the tax payer, money.
Madison County Court administrator Kim Gray has been spending a lot of time poring over the numbers lately.
"We typically have been issuing 450 summons and out of that we usually have 33 percent return," Gray said.
Court officials admit some of those summons might never actually end up in potential jurors' hands. The courts use election registration lists to pull from and sometimes those lists are outdated, but Gray says the majority of people are simply turning away from the responsibility altogether.
"I think people have gotten away from the idea of civic duty and I think people think 'oh there will be someone else there why do I need to show up'," Madison County Circuit Court Judge Karen Hall said.
From her perch inside the courtroom, Judge Hall has seen a lack of jurors impacting cases tried in the past and she is fed up with people not showing up to serve.
"It's not fair to the families, the witnesses, or the jurors who did show up to serve and it's not fair to the tax payers," Hall added.
Judge Hall says every time a trial has to be pushed back, court costs mount. That includes court-appointed attorneys' fees. Tax payers foot the bill.
According to Hall, if the court determines a potential juror does not have good cause to miss jury duty, they could serve up to 10 days in jail and pay a $300 fine.
The penalty is an incentive to show up, but in recent years judges here have resisted enforcing the law. That could change if this trend continues.
"I hope we don't have to do that and we are hopeful that by us talking to the media, people will do the right thing and show up," Judge Hall said.
Currently, Madison County is needing more jurors than usual because of several high-profile cases going to trial in the next few months.
WHNT News 19 checked with other court administrators in Alabama and requested their jury duty summons numbers. Mobile County had about 20 percent of potential jurors fail to appear, while Limestone County was at 18 percent during the same time period.
Court officials say every legal US citizen over the age of 19 who can speak English is eligible to be a juror.