By Bob Confer
Over the past couple of years, reforms of the policing, judicial, and penal systems have been in the spotlight as activists try to make what they believe to be a more compassionate and equitable legal system.
One reform that keeps slipping under the radar of this movement is the elimination of the lifetime ban from jury duty for those who were convicted of a felony. In 2019, such a bill passed the State Senate but struggled to make its way out of committee in the Assembly. In the proposed law, ex-felons would be eligible to help pass judgment on cases after having completed sentencing related to their conviction, such as the initial imprisonment and any probation or community supervision that follows. Similar bills have appeared in subsequent legislative sessions with limited fanfare and action.
When the bill passed in 2019, it was along party lines and the Republican members of the Senate took to the press to voice their displeasure over what the Democrats had done. Of course, their like-partied constituents complained on social media outlets, considering it a disgusting move by Albany as it puts those whom they consider to be lowlifes in power to decide the fate of parties who are accused of a crime or battling it out in the courts.
I, on the other hand, would have no problem with a once-convicted juror.
I’ve been under the gun in civil trials. I likely will be again; it comes with the territory of running a business that serves a variety of industries and makes water-based leisure products. So, I know the value of good jurors. Four years ago, I was party in a trial that lasted two weeks. At the end of it, the jurors made their decision and ruled that my company was not at fault. Had they gone the other way it’s likely the company would have folded.
It took the jury nearly two full days to deliberate because there were a few other defendants – individuals and corporations — involved in the trial as well, and they had to take their time meting out responsibility if there was any at all. I appreciated the time and effort they put into it.
Their thoughtfulness was an outcome of the make-up of the jury as they were a diverse bunch – from lower-income workers to white collar types to retirees to housewives.
When people are deciding your fate, that’s what you want. You are best served by people from all walks of life, jurors with their own experiences, worldviews, and observation and interpretation skills.
By “all walks of life” that means everyone…warts and all.
I would gladly accept a former felon on a jury because he has seen and been through things that the others might otherwise be unable to relate to and, more so than most on the jury, he understands the legal procedures and what the jury is actually supposed to do.
I know that he wouldn’t be any less of a person than those sitting beside him. Yes, he committed a heinous crime, or what society believes to be a heinous crime, but he faced his punishment, served his time, and suffered the woes of incarceration and the joys of reformation. If we did our job as a people and penal system, he came out a better man and stronger man.
Those against affording ex-convicts rights such as jury duty or voting would say that the unconscionably-high recidivism rates show that many of them aren’t better people.
Is it that they aren’t better people or that we aren’t better people?
Do we drive some young men to recommit because we deny them basic rights after having paid their dues, brand them with a modern day Scarlet Letter, and turn them away when they look for gainful employment and community engagement that affirms a new life for them?
If we claim to be a just people – a mantle we always proclaim with our legal system, churches, schools, and families, as well as social media’s cause du jour – then why are we not just to those who have been served our justice at its fullest?
They have paid their debts to society. It’s up to us to welcome them back into it, rather than driving them away from it.
To do so, we need to offer them the same chances that law-abiding citizens have. Not only do they deserve and want to pursue a career, but they also deserve and want to be contributing members of society to, among other things, have the power to vote, and to contribute to our judicial system.
As a nation, we’ve done our darnedest – and spent our darnedest — to institute and employ a system to transform them into good citizens.
So, let them be able to be just that.
If we don’t, what good was all of our talk, tax dollars, efforts, and alleged moral superiority?