by Ed Lyon
At present, it is believed that close to 20 million U.S. citizens are convicted felons. One of the many rights these citizens lost at conviction was jury service in federal courts. Twenty-seven states prohibit exes from jury service. Meanwhile, there are 22 states that do allow ex-felons to serve on juries, while Maine’s laws have no provision on the issue either way.
In California, former felon, lawyer, and law professor James Binnall became an activist for the cause of restoring the right of jury service to ex-felons after he was excluded from serving as a juror.
This exclusion came in spite of his being an attorney in good standing with the state bar and having received a jury summons.
Binnall has identified two primary opinions that oppose participation by exes on juries. One is a belief that exes “lack character” and the other is that they “harbor an inherent bias” against prosecution that would, according to William Snowden’s research, cause them to “automatically vote not guilty.” Snowden is director of the Vera Institute’s New Orleans office.
Studies conducted by Binnall, including mock jury trials, where the juries were composed of exes and non-felons have yielded results that soundly disprove those two beliefs concerning how exes could be expected to perform as jurors.
Binnall reported that exes “took their time to decipher case facts,” thus participating far more meaningfully. Exes were more likely to introduce new, salient facts during deliberations and were just as likely to render a guilty verdict as their non-felon peers.
“They were cooperating with other felons and non-felons to clarify key facts and points of law,” Binnall stated.
As state after state restores voting rights for exes, more of them are beginning to attempt restoration of jury service as well.
On the heels of Louisiana’s constitutional amendment to require a unanimous jury verdict to convict a citizen of a criminal offense, a bill to restore a felon’s right to serve on juries provided he or she has been off probation or parole for a five-year period narrowly failed to pass the House. California is currently considering juror service restoration for the second time.
New York’s Senate has passed such a bill.
Serving on juries also serves as a rehabilitative step after a felon reenters society. Responses by felons to one of Binnall’s surveys were typically, “When I was called to serve on a jury trial, it’s more like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m part of society.’”
Binnall further explains that felons possess valuable knowledge of criminal justice that is beneficial when shared with other jurors. And, share with other jurors they do, as Binnall pointed out “They were cooperating with other felons and non-felons to clarify key facts and points of law. Frankly, you know, they were good jurors.”
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