People on Parole Should Serve on Juries
by Vidal Guzman with Megan French-Marcelin
April 4, 2019
In New York State, over 44,000 people are on parole. New York State is just one of fifteen states that restores the right to vote to people on community supervision. This cannot be overestimated, even as people do not take advantage of this right nearly enough. Yet, at the same time, New York State undermines its commitment to civic engagement by barring people on parole and probation from participating in juries. In 49 states and the District of Columbia, people on community correctional supervision are barred from juries; in 28 of those states, that ban is permanent.
For many people, jury duty is a chore, or a burden. Yet, in communities that have been subject to over-policing and over-criminalization, the result of being locked out of civic engagement is in direct contradiction to law: We are never tried by a jury of our peers. For Black and brown communities that remains a falsehood. We are not tried by people who have been subject to police brutality or people sentenced outrageous mandatory minimums. Instead we are tried by people who live lives entirely insulated from structural inequality and racism, and that it is if we make it to a jury at all.
I came home December 31, 2014, with a five-year parole sentence. Twice a year, I receive notices requiring me to report to jury duty. Twice a year, I take time off my job to head to the courts in lower Manhattan. And twice a year, I arrive to be told that I cannot serve as a result of my parole status, and I am declined. I have been declined four times, and next year – 2019 – will be no different. I will still be on parole. I will still be denied my rights as a member of society.
If we are to truly transform the criminal legal system, it must start with the restoration of human rights that we are stripped of long after they we are freed from cages. These rights should never be taken away in the first place. The United States is one of the only rich nations that denies civil rights when people go to jail – there are European countries where people only lose their liberty. So for the legal system to work it must become a true reflection of the communities it claims to serve.
The claim from those who oppose this is that people with records will be biased and look to dismiss cases. And yet, our lived experience makes us better and more informed jurors, research has shown. Our time served allows people with records to weigh the consequences of a conviction. Out participation in a jury transforms the notion of justice.
This says nothing of the bias that jurors always carry – there are countless cases where jury bias informed the decision to convict. Black and brown communities are disproportionately convicted to disproportionately longer and more severe sentences for the same crimes. In New York State, Black people are imprisoned at a rate 8 times higher than their white counterparts, and Latinx people 3 times higher. To correct this, we need a seat at the table, and in the jury box.
Jury duty is a civic responsibility. It preserves the right of an individual to a fair trial. And ultimately, to justice. Justice must be for the people by the people. And that means we must have the right to serve on a jury.