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How States Exclude People With Criminal Records From Jury Service

But state laws excluding those with convictions from serving on a jury reduce the chances that a criminal defendant will have a “jury of his peers” and will more likely have a jury of people who are starkly different from him or her. The lack of jury pool diversity results from laws that bar more than 20 million people with a criminal record from serving on a jury. Many of those people are minorities, since they’re disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

A February 18, 2021 study by the Prison Policy Initiative (“PPI”) found that of 19 million Americans with felony convictions in 2010, about 7 million were Black, despite the fact the Black people make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Nationwide, about one in three Black men has a felony conviction. And location doesn’t matter: Both Georgia and New York have about the same percentage as the nationwide average of Black people excluded from serving on a jury.

The lack of diversity of the jury affects a defendant’s right to a fair trial, protected by the Constitution, and it’s not just because jurors of the same race as the defendant reduces the likelihood of prejudices or cultural differences. The PPI study said diverse juries were more effective because they deliberated longer on more facts, confronted their beliefs and stereotypes, and their verdicts were seen as more “legitimate” by the public.

Although called “felony exclusion laws,” several states include misdemeanor convictions as a disqualifier from jury duty. Some states even bar people who have been accused of a crime but not yet convicted (or found not guilty).

California recently changed its laws to allow those who have completed their sentences to serve jury duty (except sex offenders). Until this change, California law barred 30 percent of the state’s Black men from serving on juries. States that change their laws, though, must ensure that people are properly restored to the jury pool. For example, if a state bars a person with a felony from voting (as most do) and it pulls the jury pool from voter records, the change would be meaningless because felons would still be skipped.

Permitting 20 million people with felony convictions to serve on juries would be a powerful step toward a fairer and more effective legal system. A far more holistic approach would be reducing the number of people who have criminal convictions in the first place, the study’s authors noted. This kind of approach would entail criminalizing fewer behaviors, incarcerating fewer people, and penalizing criminal activity less harshly. 


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