Push to restore jury eligibility for people with criminal convictions gains steam

By: - August 25, 2022 6:53 am

New Jersey is one of just four states that permanently bars anyone with convictions for any felony and some misdemeanors from serving on juries. (Getty Images)

New Jersey lawmakers will seek to end a long-standing prohibition on jury service for people with criminal convictions when the Legislature returns in the fall.

State law places a lifelong prohibition on jury service for anyone convicted of an indictable offense. Those include major crimes like rape and murder and relatively minor offenses like criminal trespass.

The inclusion of lesser crimes makes New Jersey’s jury service prohibition among the strictest in the nation. Only four other states — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, and South Carolina — issue lifetime bans on jury service for people convicted of felonies and some misdemeanors. In numerous other states, only felony convictions will lead to such a ban. In seven states, once someone is no longer incarcerated, they are eligible to sit on a jury.

Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s democracy and justice program, said New Jersey “is definitely an outlier.”

“It means we deny a greater percentage of our population from serving on juries,” Patel said.

policy brief released by the Institute for Social Justice on Wednesday found between 219,000 and 269,000 Black New Jerseyans were barred from jury service because of a past criminal conviction.

Supporters of allowing ex-offenders to sit on juries note that New Jersey has the largest Black-white incarceration disparity in the nation.

In a 2021 report, the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based advocacy group, found 13 Black New Jersey residents were incarcerated for every white resident jailed. And though New Jersey successfully reduced its prison population after eliminating cash bail in 2017 and releasing thousands of incarcerated persons during the pandemic, the disparity remains.

“We’re stopping a whole group of people that are supposedly free. Why are we still penalizing them or being punitive when we should be inclusive?” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer), the prime sponsor of a bill to expand jury eligibility. “They should be a part of it.”

The assemblywoman said the state’s recent restoration of voting rights for people on probation or parole makes the jury service prohibition even more galling.

In addition to denuding the jury pool, the prohibition makes juries less representative of their communities. Because Black residents are more likely to have a criminal conviction, juries often end up being whiter than their communities, Patel said.

“The idea is the jury should be a cross-section of your community, and in New Jersey, we’re a really diverse state,” she said. “We’re one of the most diverse states in the country, and we’re just not allowing any defendants to actually have a jury that reflects that.”

Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson is behind a push to allow people with criminal convictions to serve on juries. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

Reynolds-Jackson has sought to remove the jury service ban since the 2018 session, a push that began after she attempted to help a constituent fill a jury duty notice only to learn he was ineligible because of a decades-old conviction.

“This guy has come back full circle. He’s working. He’s registered to vote. He’s participating, and now here comes this other civic responsibility, and he’s being re-penalized for something that happened 20, 30 years ago,” she said. “How punitive is that?”

The bill and its past versions did not reach a committee hearing, and none have yet won a companion bill in the upper chamber. Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) in a statement said he intends to introduce a Senate version in the coming weeks.

New Jersey briefly removed the jury service prohibition in 1995, only to reenact the ban two years later, with lawmakers citing fears that those with criminal convictions might have a bias against law enforcement.

It’s not clear whether those concerns have survived the intervening years. Jeffery Sutherland, president of the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, declined to comment, saying he’d first need to discuss the matter with the organization’s other members.

Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, and Wayne Blanchard, who heads the State Troopers Fraternal Association, did not return requests for comment.

For its policy brief, the Institute for Social Justice spoke to Al-Tariq Witcher, who was convicted of cocaine possession in the early aughts and who said he anticipates resistance from law enforcement to the idea of allowing ex-offenders on juries.

“There may be pushback because they think that ‘oh since I’ve been locked up, I’m just gonna free everybody and I’m gonna be on the side of the defense, or whatever the case may be,’” Witcher told the group. “That’s not the case — 2015, May 2, my brother was murdered, and if his murderer was ever bought to justice and the evidence was there, yes, I would vote for finding of guilt.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.