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Felons barred from jury duty: An unjustified punishment

Florida residents will vote on Nov. 6 on an amendment that would restore voting rights to 1 million people in Florida who are currently barred from voting because of a felony conviction.

What many people do not know is that in Florida, those same people are also excluded from ever serving as jurors.

While that’s not on the ballot in Florida, I believe allowing felons to serve on juries has just as much to do with ensuring the democratic ideals of shared governance and active liberty that voting provides. To date, the issue of excluding felons from juries has remained an almost entirely invisible punishment.

As a scholar on the exclusion of felons from jury service, I have conducted a series of studies that call into question the stated purposes for the practice, while highlighting its negative impacts on former offenders and jury systems.

How widespread is the exclusion?

Today, roughly 19 million Americans, 8 percent of the U.S. population, live with a felony conviction record.

In 49 states, the District of Columbia and the federal court system, felons are legally restricted from serving as jurors. In 28 states and in the federal court system, those restrictions are permanent, barring convicted felons from jury service for life. In most remaining states, convicted felons may not serve as jurors until the completion of their sentence, which includes probation and parole.

Moreover, in all but four states, felon-juror exclusion laws prevent all convicted felons from serving on any type of jury – grand, civil or criminal. Such laws have been part of American law since the Founding.

In justifying the exclusion of convicted felons from juries, lawmakers and courts cite two rationales.

The first is that felons lack the requisite character to serve on a jury. This is based on the fear that felon-jurors will flout the law, ignoring instructions when deciding a case.

The second rationale is fear of bias. This reasoning contends that felons would sympathize with criminal defendants and harbor resentment toward the prosecution. If allowed to serve, they believe felon-jurors would acquit in all instances, destroying the impartiality of the jury process.

What does the evidence say?

What’s the problem?

In my 2014 study, I compared felons’ views of criminal defendants with eligible jurors’ and law students’ views of criminal defendants. The results revealed two notable findings.

First, felons’ views of defendants varied wildly, contrary to the bias argument’s assumption that all felons will favor criminal defendants. This suggests that the assumed bias in favor of criminal defendants does not exist among all convicted felons. Second, felons and law students had similar views of criminal defendants, suggesting that if convicted felons pose a threat to the impartiality of jury process, so too do law students.

In another study, data show that law enforcement personnel are, as a group, pro-prosecution. Yet law enforcement personnel are restricted from serving on juries in only 10 jurisdictions, though they are likely biased in favor of the prosecution.

Maine is the only jurisdiction in the U.S. that allows felons to serve on juries without limitation. Evidence from a 2017 study of felon-jurors in Maine suggests that jurors with a felony criminal history strive to live up to their perception of the “ideal juror” – one that acts responsibly and impartially. This study also demonstrates that serving on a jury can help them reintegrate into society by helping build their self-esteem and view themselves as equal to other citizens.

In another study, focused on court personnel in Maine, including convicted felons in the jury process was found to improve attitudes toward former offenders. The research revealed that trial judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in Maine tend to see felon-jurors as individuals, avoiding the popular categorizing and demonizing of individuals with a criminal history.

In work I published this year, I recreated a criminal trial and then asked a mock jury of 101 participants – both felons and non-felons – to deliberate and render a verdict.

It turns out that felon-jurors actually enhanced, rather than diminished, the quality of jury deliberations. Specifically, they raised more novel case facts and spoke for longer as a proportion of deliberation time than did non-felons. These findings suggest that felon-jurors thoughtfully engaged in jury deliberations, and their presence may lead to more just jury outcomes.

Taken together, my research suggests that excluding convicted felons from jury service – like felon-voter disenfranchisement – is not justified by the facts. No evidence supports the premise that convicted felons lack the character to decide a case or would unfairly favor criminal defendants.

To the contrary, research tends to show that felon-jurors approach jury service responsibly and impartially, likely adding value to the process. In this way, exclusion almost certainly is a bad solution to a nonexistent problem.

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