The debate over letting ex-offenders sit on juries includes odious fear-mongering

December 13, 2023 7:02 am

The Legislature is considering whether to lift the state’s lifetime ban on people with criminal convictions from serving on juries. (Getty Images)

A few weeks ago I received a notice dreaded by so many: I was being summoned for jury duty.

I live in Essex County, where initial jury proceedings are still being held virtually. So on Thursday morning, I logged on and prepared to perform my civic duty.

I don’t want to get into the specifics — they asked us to keep details about the proceedings to ourselves — but jury selection generally starts with court officials asking whether anyone who was summoned has emergencies or other issues that leave them unable to serve. We all know the typical reasons: I have kids and am their primary caretaker; I have health issues; I can’t miss work; etc. This can lead to dozens if not hundreds of prospective jurors being dismissed from the start.

My experience last week left me convinced that we should be doing everything we can to increase the number of people who are asked to sit on juries, not restricting large segments of the population from serving.

This is on my mind as the Legislature considers whether to lift the state’s lifetime ban on people with criminal convictions from serving on juries.

The move has been met with some predictable fear-mongering from critics. “Lame Duck Assembly advances bill to pack N.J. juries with ex-cons,” read a headline on conservative site Save Jersey. State Sen. Jon Bramnick — a moderate in the Republican caucus — called the move the kind of “extremism when you have one party controlling Trenton.”

This reaction is divorced from the nuanced, sincere testimony from ex-offenders who appeared before lawmakers recently and urged them to pass the bill that would let them be considered for jury service. Some of them did bad things in the past, for sure. But it’s hard to believe anyone could listen to them and think they are any less capable of sitting on a jury than you or I.

“When do I enjoy the rights of being an American citizen in the state of New Jersey? I can’t change what happened in 1988. I can’t. I can’t take it back,” said Antonne Henshaw, who served a 30-year sentence for a 1988 murder in Camden. “Every time I turn around, my conviction is used to dehumanize me over and over and over again. When do we move forward?”

There was a time, pretty recently, when we appeared to come to a bipartisan agreement that people who committed criminal offenses in the past should not be branded for the rest of their lives. Yet even though some very conservative states like North Dakota and Indiana allow people with criminal histories to sit on juries without the court system falling apart, some lawmakers in New Jersey are hesitant to do the same here.

“The public is relying on the jury to determine innocence or guilt without a question of integrity. The defendant must have the best possible notion that they are being judged by a group of his or her peers,” Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-Bergen) said last week. “By doing this, we’re denying the public and the defendant the best possible opportunity for justice.”

This is nonsense. Just because someone has committed a crime in the past — even a heinous one — doesn’t mean that, once they’ve served their time and reentered society, they are incapable of judging the merits of a criminal case and meting out appropriate justice.

There’s also a practical benefit. Serving on a jury is not popular, and it’s common for prospective jurors to find any way they can to avoid serving. It’s foolish to eliminate as many as half a million people who live in New Jersey from serving on a jury when judges and lawyers struggle to find 12 jurors for every trial.

“I keep saying it: More people is better than less people,” criminal defense attorney Brian Neary told me. “Expand the pool.”

Over my years of reporting, I’ve met countless men and women who have served time in prison and remain intelligent people who want to better their communities. And frankly, if I were accused of a crime, I’d rather see many of them sitting on my jury than some members of the Legislature.

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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”