As the new statewide jury pool system continues to summon the dead, officials struggle to keep the system running smoothly. by Rashad O’Conner
Joan Shackleford, director of jury services in Richmond County, said that while the new system — put in place after House Bill 415 was signed into law last year, expanding the jury pool from 20,000 to 194,000 — may continue to summon not only deceased Richmond County residents for jury duty, but also convicted felons and foreign aliens, there is little her “one-woman-operated” department can do about it. Due to the change in law, all names previously abstracted from juror selection will now be at the court’s disposal.
“And it’s not just those who happen to be felons or non-U.S. citizens,” Shackleford divulged. “It’s also people who have been called up in the past who are over the age of 70 and have asked to have their names removed from the juror list. So, many of those individuals who have been classified as excused from jury duty are starting to receive summons again. The same also goes for people who have been exempted in the past for prominent medical issues which have been verified by their physicians.”
Shackleford, who began adhering to the new system on July 2, went on to explain that many of these issues are typically addressed and handled as promptly as they appear, but since she lacks the authority to adjust or modify juror lists, Shackleford admitted that her understaffed office has received a heavy influx of complaints.
“As far as complications are concerned, this new system has just about quadrupled everything for me work-wise,” she said. “I got over 500 phone calls last week, mostly from people saying that they no longer live in Georgia or that they met with me two years ago, filled out an affidavit and thought that they wouldn’t have to go through this process again. All of these individuals are now being placed back into the jury box and are wondering why. But our office has been working very diligently to communicate with everyone and clear up any problems that they may have.”
Contrary to public belief, the old jury selection system was not one of “forced balancing,” according to Shackleford. She insisted that her department kept a specific number of jurors per box that was balanced according to race and gender in the county.
“It was just the way we did it and it was legal,” she said. “There was nothing wrong with that system and it worked. What we did was prequalify jurors before they went into the jury box. With this new system, everybody is in there. But with the old system, it was much more stringent for someone to serve on a jury. Serving on a jury is a big honor and we wanted our juries to represent everyone in the county and I believe we did that.”
Cindy Mason, Columbia County’s clerk of Superior Court, cited that one reason behind the new jury pool expansion in Richmond County was attributed to individuals who were deliberately not registering to vote in an effort to stay out of the jury box.
“The old [juror] lists used to go by those who were registered to vote,” Mason said. “But they amended the law so that jurors would be selected from the Georgia Department of Driver Services list of those registered with driving licenses. The Georgia Drivers list from the state and the voter’s registration list from the Secretary of State are now being merged into one list which Richmond County will receive as a certified jury pool from the state.”
While the new jury system has its fair share of intricacies and complications, Mason believes that it will ultimately level the playing field in terms of those who are chosen to serve.
“I’ve been told many times that it [the old system] was an unfair bias,” she said of rumblings surrounding why the new system was recently emplaced. “I think that this new system will offer a larger pool of citizens and therefore maybe some of the same citizens aren’t going to be chosen to serve over and over again.”
Shackleford took a different angle, stating that those who have never had the chance to serve — but have always wanted to experience serving — will now be given that opportunity.
“With this new system, we are going to touch a large audience,” Shackleford assured. “The jury box is wide open now. There’s going to be the bad ones — the felons, the deceased, etc. — but we’re touching the good ones as well; those who have always wanted to serve. But those who feel like they’re getting hit on [for jury duty] more than they should have been, their chances of being selected now are going to decrease considerably. They used to be one of 20,000. Now they’re one of 194,000.”
Although the state is continuing to work the kinks out of their new jury pool system, Shackleford remains adamant about the merit and quality jurors are likely to experience while serving not only under the new system, but also in the county’s new courthouse.
“The new building is absolutely juror-friendly,” she said. “It just amazes everyone when they come in and serve for the first time. I mean, you’re never going to witness the best part of life when you come down here to serve on a jury, but the facility is great and people love it.”
Shackleford, who summons on average 600 to 700 citizens per week for jury duty, concluded by conjecturing that for every citizen against the new system, there are twice as many who endorse it.
“We’ve received wonderful feedback despite most of the complaints,” she said. “The jurors are better off than they’ve ever been and I believe that this new system works better and is more in favor of the jurors than anything that we’ve done jury-wise in Richmond County.” You Might Also Like: