Felons on Juries?

Felons on Juries? June 18, 2019

Several states have initiated legislation that would allow individuals who have been convicted of committing felonies to sit on juries. Current law disqualifies felons in most states. This is similar to what has already happened with voting rights for felons. Most states have now passed legislation allowing them to vote.

Those who argue against felons on juries say that they would have a bias against prosecution in criminal cases because of their own experiences. Of course, even if they were allowed to be on a jury panel, prosecution attorneys could still use their challenges to strike them from the jury.

The issue raises a number of questions about the rights of citizens who have committed crimes, and “done their time.” When a person is released from incarceration, are they completely rehabilitated? How could that even be determined?

I got into a discussion…no, make that argument…with a friend, who is adamant that felons should have neither the right to vote or to serve on juries. He is a proponent of the idea that humans do not have free will…that our actions are dictated by a combination of our genetic heritage and life experiences, often referred to as ”nature and nurture.” He argues that some people are impelled to commit crimes due to their “programming,” and that, given our current level of knowledge of the human brain, we don’t have a clue how to rehabilitate a felon, nor would we know if we were successful or not. He cites the high recidivism rate of felons as evidence that merely “doing time” does not result in rehabilitation.

Incarceration of criminals serves two purposes: It protects society from further harm by the offender, and it serves as a deterrent…nobody wants to be locked up. A third, and more important goal should be rehabilitation, but as noted above, that is easier said than done.

All of my friend’s arguments are true, and all are irrelevant. Our penal system is far from perfect, but given our current level of knowledge, it’s probably the best we can do. What alternative do we have? If we accept his arguments, isn’t the only alternative incarceration for life? That is clearly unacceptable, so the best we can do is to release criminals at the end of their sentence, and let nature take its course. Some will never commit another crime…either they were truly rehabilitated, or the fear of more imprisonment is sufficient deterrence. Repeat offenders are often given harsher sentences. Others may go for years before committing another crime…and some will immediately return to a life of crime. Recidivism rates are generally lower among those who commit violent crimes, highest among drug offenses…often victimless crimes.

Back to the original question: Should felons be allowed to resume their role as citizens? Clearly, the consensus is yes in the case of voting rights. At last count the number of states who allow felons to vote is approaching 40. But felons on juries is a more contentious question. A jury member should be objective in weighing evidence. Of course, none of us are perfectly objective. We all have our biases, based, just as the felon’s are, on our “nature and nurture.” Attorneys who select jurors have adequate tools to determine if a juror’s biases are likely to unduly influence him/her. I see no reason to exclude a felon from this process.

 

 

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