This is part of our Better Baltimore series, which aims to use readers’ feedback and ideas to hold government agencies and powerful entities accountable. We’re also interested in stories about readers and communities driving change on their own. Have a tip? Tell us.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about jury duty in Baltimore. Among the most common — it’s inconvenient, expensive for almost everybody involved, tedious, taxing and oh, so boring.
But is change possible?
In shrinking cities like Baltimore, jury duty has become an almost annual obligation for some residents. The city’s jury pool is typically small — last year it amounted to 247,840 potential jurors, less than half its population, according to a Maryland Judiciary spokeswoman. The total number of jurors who show up for service is even smaller.
Complaints about jury service range from logistical challenges — such as parking, safety concerns downtown, missed time at work — to moral objections. Such concerns have been raised with court systems across the country, and those who study the process say more jurisdictions are responding with reforms.
Our readers asked us to investigate how jury duty could be improved. What we found: A shallow jury pool, deeply entrenched misgivings, limited power to enact change and some progress in other states.
A depleted pool
Baltimore is one of Maryland’s busiest court jurisdictions, said Terri Charles, the Maryland Judiciary spokeswoman, and data shows the city’s population isn’t large enough to adequately space out jury service.
In 2022, Baltimore City Circuit Court summoned an average of 1,000 jurors a day, or about 20,000 a month. About 6,853 jurors, or more than a third, failed to appear each month, Charles said. Another 1,585, or about 8% of the summons, were undeliverable each month.
Voter registration and Motor Vehicle Administration records determine who gets called — thus excluding those who don’t vote and those without driver’s licenses or permits.
After all summonsing in 2022, Charles said about 58,779 people who could be jurors had yet to be summonsed. That means the remaining prospective jurors not summonsed in the given calendar year were likely to be called within three months.
There are some exceptions to this math: Jurors who serve more than five days at a time are excused from serving for three years, according to state code.
Meanwhile, the state court system excludes jurors from jury service who can’t speak, write, read or understand English; have disabilities; have been convicted of a crime in federal or state court that resulted in imprisonment for greater than one year; or have a charge pending that could result in at least a year’s imprisonment. It also does not call people who aren’t U.S. citizens.
And under state code, adults who are 70 and older, elected federal legislators, active duty military, and members of the organized militia can ask for an exemption.
All this results in a reduced, less diverse pool of jurors.
Likely exacerbating the problem, Charles said state courts during the pandemic suspended contempt hearings required of those who skipped jury duty. Those hearings were set to resume this month, Charles said.
“Occasionally, people have complained about how often they are summoned as a juror,” Charles said. “However, once people serve on a jury, the majority express that the experience was good or positive.”
A problem with perception
That sentiment also is reflected in national surveys about jury service, said Nancy Marder, professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Marder, who directs the Justice John Paul Stevens Jury Center at Chicago-Kent, said jurors who are selected to sit on juries not only tend to report positive feelings toward the judicial system after serving, but also maintain those feelings long after.
“The almost universal response initially is, ‘I don’t want to do it. I dread this,” Marder said. “And the almost universal response afterward is, ‘This was great,’ and they take their responsibility very seriously. And if you ask somebody 20 years later at a cocktail party, they will remember their experience and be able to recount it with great pride.”
Marder said prospective jurors may also have more appreciation for the system if the importance of jury service were better explained.
For centuries, only white men who owned property could serve, Marder said, and Black people and women fought hard to earn that right. “If you look at it that way … you think that people would guard that right more carefully,” she said. “And maybe that’s a history that’s not being told.”
The practice developed in medieval England and later was brought to the colonies. Jurors in medieval times originally were picked based on the amount of knowledge they had in a case, Marder said, but the practice changed by the time it was brought to the colonies to screen potential jurors for conflicts of interest.
Despite progress, prospective jurors still have qualms about serving, and that includes disillusionment with Baltimore’s justice system. City residents, and disproportionately Black residents, have been subjected to unconstitutional policing, mass incarceration and documented instances of evidence and witness tampering.
Some jurors said Baltimore’s entanglement with systemic racism heightened the stress they felt while deliberating on cases.
“It is kind of crazy, that we decide the fate of somebody,” said Diana Farmer, a juror who served on a jury earlier this month. “At the end of the day, I don’t feel like I’m at all trained or capable of making that decision.”
Farmer has been summonsed at least three times in the last six years and was selected to a jury twice, including one criminal case.
“I cried twice that week when I was on that [criminal] case,” Farmer said.
Ramsey Mihavetz and Babloo Pilli met during jury duty in December 2019 while serving on a panel for an attempted murder case involving two children. The enormity of the responsibility to deliver a just verdict wasn’t lost on them, they said, and members of the jury still keep in touch.
“I thought, ‘This is something that most people aren’t equipped to handle,’” said Pilli. “You’re asking someone to make a decision, and to make a measurement on someone at a very specific moment in time. What about all the events that lead up to it?”
One possible antidote to delivering more just outcomes? Diversifying the jury, which is something not legally required, Marder said.
“Even in communities where it’s not so diverse, that really is the goal, because then you do have people who can challenge each other,” she said.
Other states have found ways. The Arizona court system eliminated peremptory jury strikes — attorneys’ dismissal of jurors without stated reasons — in both civil and criminal cases. It’s one of several ways court systems are fighting to make jury duty more palatable, and more accessible.
A look at other states
Courts can be slow to adopt change, and they often have limited budgets, said Brian Bornstein, a research psychologist and professor emeritus at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Still, jurisdictions have implemented some modest changes to broaden the juror pool.
“There’s a movement to make things more juror-friendly,” said Bornstein, co-author of the book “The Jury Under Fire: Myth, Controversy, and Reform.”
“It is maybe part of a larger societal trend to empower consumers more,” he added.
In New Mexico, the state’s top court ruled in 2016 that non-English speakers could serve on juries. In Louisiana, a 2021 law ended a lifetime ban from jury duty for people convicted of felonies. And in 2022, San Francisco launched a pilot program called “Be The Jury,” which compensates low-to-moderate income earners $100 a day for service.
In Bornstein’s home state of North Carolina, jurors in Charlotte have access to a free child care option. But that can be costly. “Someone has to pay for the day care providers,” he said.
In Maryland, the courts raised the daily stipend from $15 to $30 in October, Charles said, and jurors who serve multiple days can collect $50 per day. She said the Maryland Judiciary has identified the need for a new, modernized circuit courthouse in Baltimore, with additional courtrooms, more quiet rooms, better Wi-Fi, enhanced security and more space for jurors and court staff to eat lunch.
Pilli and Ramsey, whose trial went on for two weeks, said they both were lucky enough to still get paid from their jobs while on jury duty.
If all employers responded to jury service the same — and if the daily stipend were doled out as a livable wage — Pilli said he suspects more jurors would want to serve.
“If people didn’t have that weight on them, like, ‘I got to get back to work,’ maybe we would have deliberated a little longer, thought about it more,” he said. “That’s a lot of money coming out of people’s pockets every day.”
WYPR radio producer Aaron Henkin contributed to this article.