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    Bill's goal: more jurors, fewer felons

    The Senate has passed the measure, which would expand criminal checks and update addresses.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 14, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Here's the law: Felons can't be jurors. Here's the problem: Florida's system of picking jurors doesn't prevent that from happening.

    That means cases must be re-tried every time a felon is discovered on a jury, a more frequent occurrence since four years ago, when court officials began using the driver's license database instead of voter rolls to find jurors.

    Now, state lawmakers are considering a proposal to weed out felons and reduce the high number of no-shows for jury duty. And it may finally put to rest the debate about whether to revert to the old system.

    "This should dramatically improve things," said Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill and a former prosecutor.

    The system was changed so jury pools would better reflect society. The change meant more minorities and young people are called for jury duty.

    But prosecutors have lobbied to return to relying on voter rolls ever since the driver's license selection system took effect in 1998. It's not just because more felons are finding their way onto juries. Prosecutors think juries generally respect the system far less now and are less likely to convict than before.

    Smith and Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, introduced bills to reverse the system but changed their minds because of strong opposition.

    "It would have failed if we had not changed it," Bean said. "There was such strong opposition to it that I don't see it coming back."

    The new proposal strikes an unlikely deal among prosecutors, public defenders and trial attorneys. The Senate has passed the bill, and it will soon be heard by the House. It would be effective Oct. 1.

    State law enforcement would begin regular checks on potential jurors to determine whether they have criminal histories in Florida or are wanted by authorities.

    Now, court clerks check criminal histories only for their own county, so someone serving on a jury in Pinellas with a Tampa conviction would slip through.

    Jurors' addresses also would be updated to reduce no-show rates. Smith said those rates can be as high as 66 percent, though that may not take into account those who are excused, such as people over 70.

    The national standard of people who show up after being summoned is 40 percent, according to the state courts administrator. Most Tampa Bay area counties come in only slightly lower than that -- except Hillsborough, at 24 percent.

    Other area counties' rates are Pinellas, 38 percent; Pasco, 35 percent; Hernando, 42 percent; and Citrus, 33 percent.

    The state does not compile statistics on how many felons are summoned for jury duty or are picked to serve.

    Buddy Jacobs, a lobbyist for the Florida Prosecuting Attorney Association, said the proposal would be "a vast improvement."

    The Legislature passed a law in 1991 that gave clerks until 1998 to switch from using lists of registered voters to a registry of licensed drivers, increasing the jury pool by 2-million people, which includes more minorities and younger people.

    "We just get a more representative section of the community," said Skip Babb, head of the Florida Public Defender Association. "That's what you are entitled to -- a jury of your peers."

    But prosecutors say people who register to vote have a greater sense of civic duty, are older, are more respectful of the system and make better jurors. Jurors picked from driver's license rolls, meanwhile, are angrier at being called for service and more likely to acquit defendants or even hand out large civil awards, prosecutors say.

    "Everyone agreed there is a problem," Bean said. "All the groups, who are like cats and dogs and don't really agree on much, got together and agreed we needed to change things."

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