February 25, 2021 03:02

One in Three Black Men Effectively Barred from Jury Service: Report

Criminal defendants in America are promised the right to be tried by a “jury of their peers” but new research from the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) shows that’s not always the case.

According to the report, the lack of racial diversity in jury boxes due to state laws barring people with conviction records from participating effectively bars one in three Black men from serving.

The author, Ginger Jackson-Gleich of the Prison Policy Initiative, also found that the rules pertaining to serving on a jury with past conviction records differ state to state, meaning that eligibility to participate in the justice system could be influenced simply by jurisdiction.

‘Location, Location, Location’

“While the laws barring people with criminal convictions from jury service are often referred to as “felony exclusion laws,” in some states (and in federal courts), people  with misdemeanor convictions can also be subject to exclusion,” Jackson-Gleich wrote.

One of the most jarring discoveries was that 43 states prohibit anyone with a felony conviction from being on a jury.

For example, in Florida and Texas, individuals who have been convicted of larceny or theft misdemeanors can be barred from jury service. In Maryland, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, anyone with a conviction record that spent more than a year in prison (“which includes certain misdemeanors in those states”) can be barred as well.

Twenty-one states prohibit current and past felons from serving on a jury indefinitely, while six other states indefinitely prohibit jury duty for “current incarceration, all past felony convictions, and some past misdemeanors.”

Because of state-based laws that impact the criminal justice system, serious diversity consequences have arisen due to the disproportionate number of people of color who are or have spent time behind bars, according to the report.

 The Intersection of Diversity

The American criminal justice system disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx people, resulting in one of the unintended consequencex of a lack of jury diversity due to prohibition laws: one in three Black men have a felony conviction.

“Of the approximately 19 million Americans with felony convictions in 2010, an estimated 36 percent (nearly 7 million people) were Black, despite the fact that Black people comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population,” the report notes.

“Although data on the number of Latinx people with felony convictions is difficult to find (because information about Latinx heritage has not always been collected or reported accurately within the criminal justice system), we do know that Hispanic people are more likely to be incarcerated than non-Hispanic whites and are overrepresented at numerous stages of the criminal justice process.”

To put these numbers into perspective, Jackson-Gleich cited a 2011 research paper which found that in Fulton County, Georgia, despite having 18.6 percent of the population made up of Black men, 46.2 percent were excluded from the jury pule due to their felon status.

Hving diverse juries that look like the communities they serve matters, because without the represented voice of everyone in a community, juries are proven to deliberate less because they may come from similar upbringings, whereas more diverse juries render views that are “more likely to be viewed as legitimate by the public,” wrote the author.

Moreover, other studies show that diverse jurors foster curiosity. Another study cited by Jackson-Gleich showed when white people were members of a racially mixed jury, they “raised more case facts, made fewer factual errors, and were more amenable to discussion of race-related issues.”

Recommendations

“The good news is that change is possible,” Jackson-Gleich asserted, noting that some states have already begun taking the necessary steps to impact their justice systems.

California recently passed legislation — championed by public defenders — that effectively ends permanent jury-duty exclusion for people with felony convictions.

On a country-wide level, Jackson-Gleich recommends that the U.S. “decriminalize and decarcerate”  so that more people aren’t disenfranchised by the justice system while seeking societal reentry.

She also suggested states must address other obstacles to jury diversity, such as voting rights, as jury pools are often picked from voting rolls.

“No matter how it’s done, reforming the nation’s many jury exclusions laws (and the many other barriers to jury diversity) will be a long, steep road, and the challenges will vary greatly from state to state,” Jackson-Gleich concluded.

“However, successful reform will bring millions of Americans back into the jury box and help to truly realize the promise of a fair trial by jury.”

Ginger Jackson-Gleich is Policy Counsel at the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) where she focuses on the Initiative’s campaign to end prison gerrymandering. Jackson-Gleich was involved in criminal justice reform for 15 years before joining PPI.

The full report can be accessed here.

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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