COLUMBUS, Ga. (WBRL)— During the COVID-19 pandemic, jury trials were limited due to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) constraints and guidelines. Now that jury trials are back in full force, the number of jurors responding to summons for jury duty has fallen off dramatically.

“If jurors aren’t here, then we run the risk of coming to a grinding stop,” Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit Chief Superior Court Judge Art Smith told WBRL.

Judge Smith describes jury duty as a ‘uniquely American experience,’ and privilege that nearly three-quarters of Muscogee County citizens who have been summoned are not taking advantage of.

“Just a few weeks ago, we had jury trials scheduled. The jurors report on Monday morning to be checked in,” Judge Smith said. “Two hundred prospective jurors had been summoned and only 56 appeared for jury duty, just a little over 25%.”

Without enough jurors to fill a panel, cases cannot be tried.

“Fortunately, the case that was scheduled resulted in a guilty plea and a jury was not actually required to be impaneled,” Judge Smith said. “But that was dangerously close to having to postpone a trial.”

The summonses that are sent out to potential jurors list 14 instances in which they can be excused; however, Muscogee County Jury Manager Sonya Kibble says many are just not responding.

“Some people just don’t show. They don’t respond at all,” Kibble said. “So, I’m finding myself having to pull three and a half times as many just to fill panels. That’s making me pull 500 to 600 jurors a week when I may only need 120.”

Kibble said before the COVID-19 pandemic, 49-50% of jurors responded to their summons. Now, that number has cut nearly in half.

A backlog of cases piled up during the COVID-19 pandemic because cases continued to be filed while jury trials were limited. Judge Smith says they are about a year to 18 months from being back where they were before COVID, but with low jury turnout it is making it harder to catch up.

“The best way we can make progress is to be able to run two or three courts concurrently. If we’re having 56 people show up for jury duty on a Monday, at best you can get one jury,” Judge Smith said. “And you might have one or two other judges who aren’t able to try their cases, at least not starting on Monday of that week.”

Not only does low jury turnout impact cases; but also jail population. If defendants cannot make bond, they are waiting inside the Muscogee County Jail for their trial.

“The sheriff does a good job of keeping the population below the maximum, but if we aren’t able to try cases, people will remain in jail if they can’t if they can’t make bond,” Judge Smith said. “Judges will set a bond, but some people cannot make it. So, they sit in the jail waiting for their trial. Any day someone’s liberties is taken from them, it’s hard to replace.”

While jury duty is a civic responsibility, Judge Smith encourages jurors to exercise their privilege to serve when summoned.

“I like to emphasize the privilege part of jury service. People will remember that 60 or 70 years ago, not all citizens were given the opportunity to be called for jury duty,” Judge Smith said. “Much has changed in our society, though, that allows for a broad cross-section of jurors to actually serve the expression as a ‘jury of one’s peers.’ And if any portion of the population is excluded, you can’t really provide an impartial jury of a defendant’s peers.”

While Judge Smith says he hopes potential jurors will serve voluntarily, he says there are serious consequences to not reporting. Failure to report could result in a contempt of court citation, monetary fines, or jail time in most extreme cases.