It didn't take long for Travis County, Texas, to realize its new I-Jury system was a keeper.
Just an hour after announcing on cable TV that jurors could respond to summonses online, the deluge began. Soon 70 percent of potential jurors were responding to summons online. That figure has grown to 85 percent since program implementation in March 2002, saving the court more than $100,000 and increasing the number of trials the court can accommodate.
"We send out anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 summonses a month," said Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza, district clerk for Travis County. "Of those who respond -- either requesting a disqualification, an exemption, or an assignment -- 85 percent are responding online."
The public's immediate response was surprising and a little unusual, Rodriguez-Mendoza said. "We saved money almost immediately because when we started the program, we had 70 percent participation. Everybody was telling us that anytime you introduce an online system or Web site, the industry standard for utilization is from 15 percent to 20 percent."
About 25 percent of the summonses return because of bad addresses, and about 10 percent of people summonsed don't respond. Thirty-five percent are excused.
Responding to a summons previously meant making an appearance at the courthouse, where the county held impaneling sessions two Mondays per month. Because of parking problems at the courthouse, the county decided to move the sessions offsite, renting a city-owned building nearby with more parking. But the city soon decided to tear the building down, creating a quandary for the county.
"The staff drove around looking for another building, but we decided to try something else," Rodriguez-Mendoza said, adding that one staff member suggested using the Internet. "We wondered if people would go on the Internet to do this, so we surveyed four separate groups, asking 'If you had the opportunity to go online, would you use it?'"
About 85 percent in each group answered yes. The county eventually found another building for the semimonthly paneling meetings while working to deploy I-Jury. With assistance from the county Records Management Department and a $250 software patch, I-Jury was connected to the county's e-mail system.
The county began I-Jury with criminal cases then moved to civil justice. Initially it was hectic for the three-member jury management staff, Rodriguez-Mendoza said.
"It took a while to for it all to be coordinated," she said. "Then we had to go to the Texas Online Commission because we wanted to do a project online. It's settled down now that everyone knows how to do this."
Takes 10 Minutes
Jury management staff responds to 85 percent of the jury summonses via e-mail. Each e-mail from a potential juror must be reviewed to ensure the person is qualified. The staff then assigns a time schedule and returns the summons to the prospective juror.
"Every time we send out a summons, the staff is having to respond to e-mails," Rodriguez-Mendoza said. "It's intense. It's not as physical as it used to be -- carrying forms and summonses. It's a different kind of work."
It's a different story for potential jurors. It takes about 10 minutes to go online, complete the questionnaire and send it off. Prospective jurors get an e-mail response in three to five days, telling applicants their e-mails were received and to wait for a response.
Although I-Jury cut the number of calls routinely answered by staff, the court still receives numerous calls.
"People want to make sure we got their e-mail," Rodriguez-Mendoza said, "even though we do send them a reminder."
One gentleman sent his questionnaire electronically, then called 5 minutes later to make sure it was received. "Those are the kinds of calls we're getting," Rodriguez-Mendoza said. "And of course, people get anxious because they haven't received their assignment yet and want to know when they're going to get it."
The court is looking to expand the I-Jury system, Rodriguez-Mendoza said.
"We're looking at a security system that will automatically allow us to assign, so when the person went online the next e-mail they'd get already tells them when to show up and where," she said. "Right now, that's not happening."
For that $250 investment, the court has saved nearly $150,000 since going live with I-Jury.
With just 15 percent of potential jurors now showing up in person, it's no longer necessary to rent the Crockett Center in Austin twice a month for two to three impaneling sessions each day. They now do one session per month, which has saved the court roughly $30,000 in rent. The court has saved more than $100,000 by drastically reducing the number of $6 per diems it pays prospective jurors who just show up.
I-Jury also allows staff to arrange trials more quickly. As a result the court has tried approximately 50 more trials since March 2002 than it would have, Rodriguez-Mendoza said. "It really addresses the court demand, setting trials and getting people to trial quicker."
Citizens appreciate that, which Rodriguez-Mendoza knows because she receives letters stating so.
"One of the first letters I received was on March 26, about a month after we introduced it," she said. "The lady said how delighted she was to have received a phone call from one of our clerks telling her she didn't have to serve because the trial didn't go. She had gone online and received her assignment and then a phone call saying, 'Thank you for responding. We don't need you because the case was settled.'"
Judges also survey jurors after trial and so far, have received mostly positive responses. In fact, weaknesses in the system have been hard to find, according to Rodriguez-Mendoza.
"The system went down once, but luckily we had a backup system, so that didn't affect it," she said. "We haven't lost any e-mails. When we had the virus, it slowed the system down, but it was nothing catastrophic."
The court recently went to the Legislature to ensure other counties wanting to implement I-Jury would be able to do so, and succeeded in getting a state representative to introduce H.B. 2188, which would allow other counties to use the system.
"This has benefits for small rural counties as well because sometimes people have to travel 25 to 30 miles just to respond to a summons," Rodriguez-Mendoza said. "If you can save them one of those trips, that needs to be considered."