New Law Allows Felons to Serve on Juries in California

December 5, 2019 Updated: December 5, 2019
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A new state law will permit felons to serve on California juries starting on Jan. 1, 2020.

The law, introduced by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), will not apply to convicted felons who are currently on parole or those who are required to register as sex offenders.

In Skinner’s view, this law will “ensure that California juries represent a fair cross-section of our communities. People with felony records have the right to vote in California. There is no legitimate reason why they should be barred from serving on a jury.”

James Binnall, an assistant professor of law, criminology, and criminal Justice at CSU Long Beach, voiced his support for the legislation by testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the California State Senate.

“My personal experience was part of my testimony,” he told The Epoch Times, adding that “there’s no one in the country who probably knows more about this than I do.”

Crucially, Binnall understands the matter from both sides.

Before working as a defense lawyer on several homicide cases in San Diego, before he authored a variety of articles in a number of law reviews and social science journals, and before he became recognized as a leading scholar on felon juror exclusion—Binnall found himself behind bars.

In 1999, Binnall was convicted for homicide in a drunk driving incident that resulted in the death of his friend and passenger.

During his parole, he attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law and graduated during the same week that marked the conclusion of his seven-year sentence.

When asked how long he served, Binnall doesn’t hesitate before answering: “Four years, one month and six days.”

But a moment of reckoning occurred in 2009, when Binnall received a summons to serve as a juror in the same courtroom where he regularly performed his duty as a defense lawyer.

As he was filling out the standard questionnaire, he had to disclose that he had been convicted of a felony. In the state of California, this meant that he was barred from serving as a jury member—for life.

“It caught me off guard,” Binnall said. “I was aware of collateral consequences, but I guess I just wasn’t aware of this one.”

“When I talked to the jury commissioner … I said, ‘I was in this courthouse a week ago working on a case as an attorney, but you’re telling me I can never serve [as a juror]?”

The jury commissioner advised Binnall to contact his congressman, but instead he dove into a period of extensive research.

“I did a cross reference of all the states where you can be a licensed attorney with a felony conviction and all the states where you were permanently excluded from jury service,” he said. “At the time, it was 29 states in the federal system [where] you were allowed to be an attorney with a felony conviction … but you were not ever allowed to serve as a juror again, which I found incredibly strange.”

Since then, Binnall estimates that he has conducted at least eight independent studies to research this particular issue. The principle findings of over a decade’s worth of work will be presented in his forthcoming book, “20 Million Angry Men: The Exclusion of Convicted Felons from American Juries.”

In terms of potential complications posed by convicted felons serving on juries, Binnall claims, “I have found none.”

However, there are noteworthy benefits for having former convicts serve on juries, including a diversity of perspective for the jury itself and “corroboration of reformation,” as Binnall refers to it, for the former convict.

“It helps them get over this criminal past in that it certifies that they are, in fact, changed and that they are, in fact, full citizens now by allowing them in,” he said. “From a policy perspective, [excluding former convicts from serving as jurors] really makes no sense at all.”

“They put the word ‘Rehabilitation’ at the end of California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation,” Geri Silva, an organizer with Fair Chance Project, told The Epoch Times. “When people come out of prison, they don’t come home until they are rehabilitated … It’s extremely important that their civil rights are restored, that they be allowed to be on juries.”

According to a 2017 study cited by CalMatters, one in every five African-American men in California is prevented from serving on a jury due to a prior felony conviction.

“I think upon implementation that this [law] will have an impact on the racial composition of juries,” Binnall said.

“We allow a cross section of society to be on juries,” Silva added. “Some people might be objectionable to police being on juries, feeling that they’re biased against the defendant—and they’re on juries.”

Indeed, some law enforcement officials have spoken in opposition to the new law.

“If we’re going to have felons serve as jurors, maybe that would be a good way to make sure that they’re abiding by the laws—because they’ve proven in the past that they don’t,” said Ryan Sherman of the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, according to CalMatters. “Here they are to be sworn-in as jurors to uphold the law, but their track record hasn’t demonstrated that they’re willing or able to do that.”

From Binnall’s perspective, this point of view is “misguided” and not altogether different from “using a hatchet where you probably should have used a scalpel.”

“We’ve always allowed misdemeanants to serve, and we’ve never questioned their fitness based on misdemeanors,” he said. “For that matter, you can extend that argument … to its logical conclusion to anyone who’s had a traffic citation. I just don’t think that’s an appropriate measure for whether or not someone is fit for [jury duty].”