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Court seeking jury efficiency

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//October 20, 2011//

Court seeking jury efficiency

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//October 20, 2011//

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The most recent request for more money to pay jurors has prompted a search for ways to streamline jury management in Milwaukee County’s Children’s Court.

Last year, the court exceeded its juror fee budget of $570,000 by $74,595, and a similar overage is expected at the end of 2011.

The 2012 budget calls for an additional $75,000 for juror fees to compensate for an increase in jury summons, primarily in Children’s Court in Wauwatosa.

But Lori Watson Schumann, jury management services coordinator, said she has been working since last year to minimize the need for more money.

One of her primary solutions has yet to take hold.

“There needs to be a more realistic look at putting things over to the afternoon,” Watson Schumann said. “We’re trying to get staff on board and talking with judges.”

The plan would let the county pay jurors $8 for half days rather than $16 for full days, she said.

Judge Joe Donald said he the switch also would let judges work through pretrial motions or find out if a case can be settled prior to calling a jury. But he said there is a danger that scheduling trials for the afternoon could prolong cases and ultimately cost the county more money.

“It would seem rather odd to me to, say, pick jurors for a trial that might only take three days if they put in three good days,” Donald said. “But because of budget reasons, we have to spread it over a series of afternoons that could last a week.”

Still, attorney Jane Probst said, in her experience handling juvenile trials and as a juror called to Children’s Court, mornings are often when attorneys either negotiate a last-minute settlement or conduct motion hearings.

“When I was called for jury duty, I spent over half a day waiting around to see if I was going to be called,” said Probst, of Halling & Cayo SC, Milwaukee. “I think it is worth looking into seeing if they can streamline that process.”

Probst said more afternoon scheduling would make sense financially but acknowledged that cases such as termination of parental rights don’t always allow for flexible scheduling.

Since 2007, Children’s Court has handled an average of 392 termination of parental rights cases, the vast majority of which funnel through two judges.

That has been problematic, especially in those cases scheduled for trial, Watson Schumann said, because judges often overcompensate in the number of jurors called to ensure enough will show up for cases.

Although only 12 jurors are needed for trial, Donald said, he typically calls as many as 40 jurors because some fail to show up and others are excused.

“For some jurors,” he said, “the subject matter of child abuse or neglect hits too close to home and if they already have a bias, it takes a little larger panel to get down to the appropriate pool.”

The number of jurors summoned to Children’s Court increased from 1,726 in 2009 to 2,036 last year, but the number of jury trials only increased from 17 to 21 over that span.

In 2010, if 12 jurors plus two reserves were used for each trial, only 294 jurors actually served.

So far this year, 1,722 jurors have been called and there have been 26 jury trials at Children’s Court.

Donald suggested judges could call fewer jurors but retain them longer to work multiple trials at Children’s Court.

“If they are in for a week,” Donald said. “One jury panel could do multiple cases.”

John Barrett, Milwaukee County Clerk of Courts, said the county is exploring the possibility of moving to a “two-step” system, which would assign jurors to a particular case instead of having them report and wait to see if they are needed for trial.

One of the reasons the court delayed its request to increase the budget for juror fees, Barrett said, is because from 2007-09, the county spent an average of $588,000 on juror payments.

During that span, the court operated with an average juror fees budget of $650,000. Given the average savings to the county, Barrett said, he didn’t want to base his 2011 request on a one year spike.

“Our analysis was based on recent trends,” he said of this year’s budget. “But if we don’t have enough in the budget to cover actual expenses, I’m going into deficit, which I’d prefer not to do.”

That is the case again this year, with the juror fees expected to reach $620,000, or $40,000 more than provided in the 2011 budget.

While the court is searching for ways to save money, the $75,000 increase is the short-term solution, Barrett said.

Watson Schumann said she wants changes prior to the next budget cycle to avoid the potential of having to ask the county for more money.

“We’re working on trying to not be quite so frequent in calling in jurors out there unnecessarily,” she said. “The harder thing to predict is how often they are going to go, so we have to have them there in case they do go.”

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