Jury Duty Is the Next Big Step for Felons’ Rights

By Jacob Rosenberg, Mother Jones

William C. Snowden, director of Vera Institute's New Orleans office, speaks about jury duty  Courtesy of William C. Snowden

William C. Snowden, director of Vera Institute's New Orleans office, speaks about jury duty Courtesy of William C. Snowden

A year or so after he passed the California state bar, James Binnall received a jury summons. In a San Diego courthouse, he watched Rob Lowe explain the value of his public service on a television, and then was handed a questionnaire. “It was question number seven,” Binnall recalls. “Have you been convicted of a felony?” Just the week before, Binnall had been second chair on a death penalty trial in the same courthouse. No one asked him the question then. But now, like all other Californians who’d answered “yes” to question seven, he approached a clerk in the back of the room and was told he couldn’t serve on a jury. He explained he was an attorney, that he’d even used the special entrance for lawyers to enter the courthouse that day, that it didn’t make sense.

“Write your Congressman,” the clerk responded. Instead, he spent the better part of a decade developing a well-sourced rebuke. Now a law professor at California State Long Beach, Binnall is the leading researcher on felons’ exclusion from juries. “That started it all for me,” Binnall tells Mother Jones.

As presidential candidates debate restoring voting rights to incarceratedindividuals and states roll back felony disenfranchisement, Binnall is among a growing group of scholars and advocates who are examining what he calls the “next movement” of felon rights: jury duty.

An estimated 19.8 million people in the United States have a felony conviction and are therefore excluded from serving on juries in federal courts, as well as courts in 27 states. Several other states technically allow felons to serve on juries, but the right is contingent upon factors like parole, time of release, and approval from the prison system. Only one state, Maine, has no law regarding the matter.

Binnall says opposition tends to be two-pronged, and it hearkens back to the original case law to exclude felons: they “lack character” and “harbor an inherent bias” against prosecution. But that “bias,” Binnall argues, is also valuable knowledge of the criminal justice system. “There is this kind of misconception that formerly incarcerated people would get on a jury, and they’d automatically vote not guilty,” says William C. Snowden, director of the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice and head of the Juror Project. “It’s not true.”

In fact, it’s just the opposite. A recent study from Binnall mixed felons and non-felons on mock juries and found that there was not much difference between the two groups. Overall, convicted felons outperformed their non-felon peers: Felons were more likely to introduce new facts, participate for a greater amount of time. They also were equally likely to convict. “They were taking their time to try to decipher case facts,” Binnall explains. “They were cooperating with other felons and non-felons to clarify key facts and points of law. Frankly, you know, they were good jurors.”

For those with felony convictions, jury duty can feel humanizing, a path back into society. Binnall was surprised by how much felons appreciated the civil service so many of us avoid in a field study felons described feeling “segregated from everybody else”, “lower,” and “not human” on a day-to-day basis. But “when I was called to serve on a jury trial,” explained one, “it’s more like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m part of society.'”

“You feel as though the state is welcoming you back into the fold and has corroborated the reformation,” Binnall says.

Some states are reconsidering their laws that ban felons from the jury box.

The New York Senate recently passed a bill to allow felons to serve on juries, and California is considering similar legislation. In Louisiana, on the heels of a hard-won fight to require unanimous decisions from the jury box, a bill to allow felons who have been out of prison and off probation and parole for at least five years to receive summons just failed to pass the state House.

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