Should felons serve on juries? California seems to think so

California is still tinkering around with their own special version of democracy. The latest lab experiment they’re looking to conduct comes to us in the form of Senate Bill 310, introduced by Nancy Skinner, a Democratic state Senator from Berkeley. It would allow convicted felons who have been released to serve on juries. She describes the bill as an effort to “ensure that California juries represent a fair cross-section of our communities.” Currently, felons are not allowed to serve. Skinner compares serving jury duty to felons having the right to vote. If you can do one, why not the other?

John Phillips, writing at the Orange County Register, sees things a bit differently. He describes this as an effort by Democrats to reduce the number of people in prison by ensuring nobody gets convicted in the first place.

Currently, felons are prevented from serving on juries because of their obvious and inherent bias against prosecutors and law enforcement.

If you honestly believe that jurors in California who’ve served time won’t be more lenient towards accused criminals, I’ve got a bullet train to sell you.

People who have a family member in law enforcement are excused from jury duty all the time because of the possibility of bias, even unconscious bias.

How can someone who’s served time be considered free of bias?

That’s like having crazy cat ladies vote on how many cats a person should own.

At least at first glance, I can see both sides of this argument, but one is founded in theory while the other is a bit more of a recognition of reality. As to the theory, when a person has finished serving their sentence in prison, along with possible time spent on parole and paying any fines that are owed, they have “paid their debt to society.” At that point, they’re released back into the general population of citizens in good standing. From that perspective, one could readily argue that they should certainly be able to both vote and serve on a jury.

And then there’s the reality. As Phillips implies in his column, voir dire is hard enough as it is. You have to be something of a mind reader to pick a good, unbiased jury out of the pool. You’ve got plenty of regular, working-class folks you might love to have on the jury doing their level best to avoid being chosen. Meanwhile, there might be some tricksters with nothing but time on their hands who are putting up a good front and hoping to be picked. Anyone answering questions indicating that they might have the least bit of bias is almost always rejected immediately and we still don’t always manage to get it right.

How in the world are we to believe that someone who has done hard time in prison isn’t going to come away from that experience with some bias toward prosecutors and the criminal justice system? Sure, there may be a percentage who turn over an entirely new leaf, but would you really want to bet your career on which ones those are? And as to the state Senator’s explanation of why California should do this, voting and serving on a jury are not the same thing. Voting is a right and except in specific circumstances, everyone is entitled to it. Serving on a jury isn’t a right. It’s a duty. It’s got the word “duty” right in the description. And most of the country is trying to avoid it anyway.

This doesn’t seem like a very good plan. Then again, this is California we’re talking about after all. What else did I expect?

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