One of the broken promises of the criminal justice system is that a person who completes felony time in prison or jail will leave with a clean slate and a chance to start over. It doesn’t work that way. Liberty once lost is rarely fully restored.
At criminal justice reform rallies, advocates have made a ritual of unrolling a lengthy scroll that lists thousands of collateral consequences of felony convictions — punishments that were never part of the judge’s sentence but are nevertheless quite real and continue pummeling former inmates for the rest of their lives. A few of those restrictions make sense, like barring convicted child molesters from working with children. Some are just spiteful and stupid, like those that make it nearly impossible for former inmates to get jobs, housing, education or anything else that could make it easier for them to responsibly reenter law-abiding society.
Many states don’t even restore a former inmate’s right to vote — ever. Thankfully, that’s not the case in California, where voting rights are automatically restored after an offender completes his or her sentence.
But not the right to serve on a jury. It is ironic that while thousands of Californians who have managed to keep their records clean are trying their best to weasel out of jury service, thousands more with long-ago felonies would like to fully participate in this most essential and emblematic marker of citizenship, but can’t. They’re permanently banned.
Proponents of the status quo offer several arguments that have some surface appeal but, on examination, simply don’t hold up.
For example, won’t ex-prisoners hold grudges against the criminal justice system that deprived them of their liberty and therefore be automatic votes to acquit?
Nonsense. First, jurors are needed every day not just for criminal cases but for all variety of lawsuits — personal injury cases, for example, or medical malpractice, breach of contract, workers’ compensation and the like. A prospective juror who lost a workers’ comp case isn’t barred from sitting on a civil jury because of any suspected grudge against the legal system. It makes no more sense to bar a convicted felon who has done his time from a civil jury.
It doesn’t make any sense to bar such a person from a criminal jury either. There is a process for examining members of the jury pool for prejudice and fitness to serve, and for excusing those who are less likely to be fair. That’s the way it works with prospective jurors who are crime victims, lawyers, insurance adjusters, human resource managers, elected officials — any of whom might harbor some kind of prejudice based on their experiences or outlooks, and all of whom are subject to examination and dismissal where appropriate. They are not subject to blanket bans against being even considered for jury service, nor should they be. Neither should convicted felons who have done their time.
Meanwhile, research suggests that former prisoners who had their voting rights restored were less likely to offend again, presumably because enfranchisement made them feel more closely bound to society. It stands to reason that restoration of jury rights would have a similar effect.
Some argue that the other jurors would be scared of a former felon in their midst, but that ignores the fact that we encounter former felons every day, working alongside us, driving next to us, living across the street. It’s hard to imagine a safer place than a courthouse, notwithstanding the vigorous debates that can take place in the jury room.
Others might claim that people who have committed felonies have broken the rules of society and can no longer responsibly carry out the duties of citizens, nor can they be reliable judges of character. But California voters partially disposed of that argument in 1974 when they restored voting rights, and besides, once a sentence is completed a citizen should be able to fully return to the fold, with all rights — and duties — returned, consistent with public safety.