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Jurors won't be captives of system

Typically, at the beginning of a trial, jurors are asked if anyone would rather not be there.

Invariably, a roomful of hands go up.

With new legislation, court officials hope that will change July 1.

If you were called for jury duty, you knew you could be out of work for the rest of the week, even if never chosen for a jury.

After July 1, that call will mean serving only one day of jury duty, unless you're picked for a trial.

"The Legislature, over the last two or three years, has taken a look at jury service to make it a better process," said Gregory Youchock, senior court analyst with the state courts administrator's office in Tallahassee.

The law also gives a pay raise to jurors _ to $15 from $10 a day, for those who aren't paid by their employers during jury service and for those who are not employed.

But there's a switch. The state no longer will reimburse jurors whose employers pay them during duty, unless a juror is picked for a trial that lasts more than three days. For the fourth day and beyond, they will be paid $30 a day, as all jurors will be paid after three days' service.

The state no longer will pay mileage or lunch.

"This was not implemented as a cost savings measure, but as a convenience for the citizens of Florida," Youchock said. "Some people might be unhappy that they're not getting paid, but when they find out they're not going to be jerked around for a whole week, they'll be happy."

Service varies from county to county.

A typical week of service in Pinellas County, which Youchock says is one of the most efficient in the state, begins Tuesday, and jurors call a number each night to see if they must return the next day. Potential jurors can spend three days without ever getting called for a jury.

Invariably, by midweek, there's a lot of moaning from those who have places they'd rather be.

"I can understand losing three days out of the office," said Jacque Avise, jury supervisor for Pinellas County. "Some things are covered for you, and other things aren't. For the most part, most jurors will see the benefits of the new system."

In Hillsborough, jurors are chosen Mondays and Wednesdays. Generally, if they're not chosen the first day, they don't have to return.

"So there really is not going to be any change for us," said Cindy Williams, jury services manager for Hillsborough. "They're happy when they find out that's the only day they're here."

Some counties still have five-day trial weeks, a long, drawn-out process for potential jurors.

"That's what this law is trying to eliminate," Youchock said. "When jurors say, "I came on Monday, sat here on Tuesday ,' it diminishes people's faith in the system. By having people excused by the end of the day, it will keep the civic spirit of jury duty alive."

With the new legislation, 80 to 90 percent of jurors called statewide will be in and out in one day.

But because the legislation calls for what lawyers term "fresh jurors" each day, about 10 to 20 percent more people will be summoned each week statewide.

Pinellas County summons about 375 people to criminal court and 225 to civil court each week. The number of people summoned to criminal court will more than double to 810 called each week. Civil court will stay about the same, because most jurors are chosen on the first day of service anyway.

Hillsborough County calls about 225 people Mondays and 150 Wednesdays, but that varies depending on the pending trials.

The state courts administrator's office did a statewide survey that showed about 70 percent of employers pay their employees during jury duty.

But in Pinellas County, which conducted its own survey, only about 50 percent of employers pay.

"I hope this will make employers think about it," Ms. Avise said. "Think about the guy who is living hand-to-mouth. That could be devastating to take a paycheck away for a week."

Youchock said the legislation was done with jurors in mind, and they have no room to complain.

"Jury duty is part of your civic obligation," he said. "We're trying to make it as easy as possible and pay people with biggest burdens. As a government and society, I don't know what else you can do."

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