Fewer than three of every 10 Pasco residents summoned to serve on circuit and county court juries last year reported for duty. The state standard, for what is known as the summoning yield, is 40 percent. Paula S. O'Neil, circuit court clerk and county comptroller, and the County Commission want to improve Pasco's turnout with a laudable new offer of free transportation.
Beginning April 1, Pasco residents summoned for jury duty will be able to hitch a free ride on the fixed-route service of the Pasco County Public Transportation to and from the Pasco County Courthouse in Dade City and the West Pasco Judicial Center off Little Road. Details are still to be ironed out, but the actual summons, presented with identification, likely will serve as the first-day pass and those seated for a court case will receive a bus pass at the end of each day they serve.
Modeled after a similar program in Orange County, commissioners wisely approved O'Neil's proposal Tuesday morning, but not before overcoming financial questions tied to overblown statistics about the potential for lost revenue for the bus service.
"It's a noble idea, but I'm all about money,'' said County Administrator John Gallagher, who suggested the request be considered during summer budget deliberations. His concern is understandable considering Pasco cut its bus service and raised its fares in the current budget, but it is hard to see the downside.
The county already spends state, federal and local dollars to operate its mass transit system. The costs are fixed — unless fuel prices fluctuate — regardless of whether a bus carries 40 passengers or four. Offering an empty seat to a juror headed to the courthouse carries no added expense and should be encouraged.
O'Neil noted the ancillary benefit of advertising the availability of mass transit service on approximately 50,000 summons. More importantly, potential jurors have told the clerk's office they do not have reliable transportation or cannot afford to pay for the cost of getting to the courthouse. Under state law, jurors are not reimbursed transportation costs.
A fair justice system requires jurors from a cross section of the community, said Chief Circuit Court Judge J. Thomas McGrady, who told the Commission "anything we can do to allow more citizens to be there and serve enhances the justice system.''
Indeed. Civic duty shouldn't be hindered by personal economics.