September 28, 2022

NEWARK –The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice today released Jury of Our Peers, a policy brief arguing that New Jersey should open up jury service to people with criminal convictions. Currently, the state bans people who have been convicted of indictable offenses from jury service for life.

Because New Jersey leads the nation in having the highest racial inequality in Black/white incarceration rates for both adults and youth, the ban on jury service for those with indictable (felony) criminal offenses whitewashes our juries and impedes the right to a jury of one’s peers, while also disproportionately precluding Black community members from the civic participation that comes with serving on juries.

“Our ban on jury service for people with criminal convictions does double damage by both denying defendants a jury of their peers and precluding a disproportionate number of Black people from participating in civic society by serving on juries,” said Henal Patel, Director of the Democracy & Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “This practice bars about a quarter of New Jersey’s Black population from serving on a jury and guarantees that our juries never truly reflect the racial diversity of our state.”

“For people like me who have been incarcerated and experienced the alienation that goes along with that – even sometimes after being released – the ability to fully participate in civic life is precious and helps us reintegrate into our communities. The ability to serve on a jury is part of that,” said Ron Pierce, Policy Analyst in the Democracy & Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Additionally, having been part of the criminal justice system, I know that prohibiting people with criminal convictions from serving on juries for life, like we do in New Jersey, means that people caught up in the system as defendants cannot be granted the fundamental right to a jury of their peers.”

In New Jersey, a Black adult is over 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white adult, and a Black young person is 18 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white peer even though Black and white youth commit most offenses at similar rates. These racial disparities lead to a reality where New Jersey prohibits approximately 219,000 to 269,000 of its Black population from jury service because of a criminal conviction – a staggering 23-29%.

It also means that defendants, who are disproportionately Black, are being tried by disproportionately white juries.

“In talks about effectuating change and restorative justice, jury duty service is one of those big topics that gets overlooked,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (LD 15), a sponsor of pending bill A977 to expand jury service to people with criminal convictions. “The New Jersey Judicial Conference on Jury Selection recommendations gave credibility to Assembly Bill 977 to expand jury service, and I have community partner and leadership support to move this legislation forward to a committee hearing.”

“Expanding jury service to people with criminal convictions both makes our trial system fairer and benefits society overall by helping formerly incarcerated people be whole people in our democracy – with the same responsibilities and freedoms as the rest of us,” said New Jersey Sen. Brian Stack (LD 33), who is expected to introduce the Senate bill eliminating the lifetime jury service ban.

Recently, the New Jersey Judicial Conference on Jury Selection examined the lifetime ban on jury service and recommended restoring the right to jury service to people who have completed their sentence. Jury of Our Peers argues New Jersey should go further and join Maine, Indiana, North Dakota and Washington in removing the bar on all formerly incarcerated people serving on juries – including those on probation and parole.

Jury of Our Peers debunks commonly made arguments against expanding the right to jury service, arguing that our existing voir dire (jury selection) process, recently strengthened through the work and recommendations of the Judicial Conference on Jury Selection, is equipped to address any possible bias that a juror may have.

In 2019, New Jersey restored the vote to 83,000 people on probation and parole, disconnecting an insidious tie between the racism of the criminal justice system and our democracy.

“We’ve recently restored thousands of people’s right to vote and so now we should be able to increase jury service capacity, as well. Jury duty is a public service that we must all participate in, regardless of past convictions.  We have to continue to fix retaliatory systems that impede on our civil rights,” said Asw. Reynolds-Jackson.

“If we believe in justice, fair trials and reintegration into society for formerly incarcerated people, New Jersey must allow all formerly incarcerated people the freedom to serve on juries,” said Patel.