Felons barred from jury duty: An unjustified punishment

Florida residents will vote on Nov. 6 on an amendment that would restore voting rights to 1 million people in Florida who are currently barred from voting because of a felony conviction.

What many people do not know is that in Florida, those same people are also excluded from ever serving as jurors.

While that’s not on the ballot in Florida, I believe allowing felons to serve on juries has just as much to do with ensuring the democratic ideals of shared governance and active liberty that voting provides. To date, the issue of excluding felons from juries has remained an almost entirely invisible punishment.

As a scholar on the exclusion of felons from jury service, I have conducted a series of studies that call into question the stated purposes for the practice, while highlighting its negative impacts on former offenders and jury systems.

How widespread is the exclusion?

Today, roughly 19 million Americans, 8 percent of the U.S. population, live with a felony conviction record.

In 49 states, the District of Columbia and the federal court system, felons are legally restricted from serving as jurors. In 28 states and in the federal court system, those restrictions are permanent, barring convicted felons from jury service for life. In most remaining states, convicted felons may not serve as jurors until the completion of their sentence, which includes probation and parole.

Moreover, in all but four states, felon-juror exclusion laws prevent all convicted felons from serving on any type of jury – grand, civil or criminal. Such laws have been part of American law since the Founding.

In justifying the exclusion of convicted felons from juries, lawmakers and courts cite two rationales.

The first is that felons lack the requisite character to serve on a jury. This is based on the fear that felon-jurors will flout the law, ignoring instructions when deciding a case.

The second rationale is fear of bias. This reasoning contends that felons would sympathize with criminal defendants and harbor resentment toward the prosecution. If allowed to serve, they believe felon-jurors would acquit in all instances, destroying the impartiality of the jury process.

What does the evidence say?