By CATHERINE BYRNE
Capital News Service
LANSING –Niles resident Amy Smith was called for jury duty, drove to St. Joseph, and waited around for six hours only to have the defendant plead to a lesser sentence.
She received salary for her job, so a day off was not a financial burden, and the $15 juror fee was a bonus. But not all jurors are in her situation.
“My job had flexible hours and I was on salary,” Smith said. “But it’s got to be tough for people paid hourly. Especially if you have to stick around for a whole case.”
A measure to increase Michigan’s juror reimbursement fees passed 104-0 in the House and is in the Senate Judiciary Committee. If passed, the bill would raise the minimum daily juror compensation from $15 to $40.
Jackie Niciporek, jury coordinator for the Jackson County District Court, is optimistic about the bill’s possibilities.
“Most people are paid much more than we pay them for duty,” Niciporek said. “Raising the fees would get people here. All parties involved in the case would benefit because the jury would be a group of people happy to be there.”
Cass County District Court in Cassopolis chooses to pay jurors $25–$10 dollars more than the minimum. Diane Barrett-Curtis, court administrator for Cass County, said it’s more about convenience than money.
“We try to make it as convenient as possible,” Barrett-Curtis said. “But as far as encouraging people to show up, I don’t think that’s the point. If we’re trying to get as many people in the seats as possible, why not pay them $100 per day?
“I don’t think 15 more dollars is going to make a big difference.”
The Michigan Association of Counties believes the measure, which amends a 1961 law, is much needed.
“Jury reimbursement fees haven’t increased since the ’60s,” said Jerry Griffin, MAC director of legislative affairs. “We agreed with the idea that they had to increase just to alleviate the problem of people not showing up.”
Currently, individual counties foot the bill for juror reimbursement. Under the new measure, the increase in juror compensation would come from raising fees on civil traffic infractions and raising the license reinstatement fee.
Griffin said MAC requested a “funding mechanism” to go along with the bill, so as not to put all the burden of cost on the counties.
Sen. William Van Regenmorter, R-Hudsonville, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said raising license reinstatement fees might not be the answer.
“Reinstatement fees are usually for people who are financially burdened, so I don’t want to overcharge these people and have more money than we need for this specific program,” Van Regenmorter said. “This bill is just one approach, and we plan on reviewing it.”
The measure is scheduled for a hearing before the committee on March 13. Although the bill passed in the House nearly six months ago, the Judiciary Committee has been busy with a terrorism package and hasn’t gotten to it, Van Regenmorter said.
“It’s time to do something,” he said. “Jurors are significantly under-compensated and something needs to be done.”
Linda Gelesko, juror clerk for the Berrien County Trial Court, believes the new bill would help in two specific areas.
“I hear the most complaints from self-employed people who have no one to cover for them or women home taking care of children,” Gelesko said. “They can’t afford child care with $15 a day.”
Barrett-Curtis agrees that stay-at-home parents would benefit, but said $40 would only “defray the cost of child care.”
Hillsdale resident Cherie Myers was paid hourly when she was called to jury duty, but her company reimbursed her for her time. Buchanan resident Mary Miller has served three times, and her employer reimbursed her every time.
Gelesko wants more companies to get involved.
“I think the employers need to get in there and help a little bit, too,” she said. “I think that might help get people here.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By CATHERINE BYRNE