Five registrants have filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court challenging a new state law that allows all felons, except those convicted of a sex offense, to serve as jurors. According to the lawsuit, the new law violates the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution.
The new law, which began as Senate Bill 310, did not initially exclude registrants from jury service. That version of the bill passed the Senate, however, the bill was later amended to exclude registrants in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.
“There is absolutely no reason given in the legislative history of Senate Bill 310 for the exclusion of registrants from jury service,” stated ACSOL Executive Director Janice Bellucci. “And there is no rational basis for that exclusion.”
As currently written, the law allows individuals convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery and other violent offenses to serve on juries. Prior to passage of the bill, one law enforcement organization complained about that possibility. Specifically, the Riverside County Sheriffs Association stated, “SB 310 would force law-abiding citizens into close proximity with violent offenders, creating dangerous situations in closed jury rooms and during sequester. Law-abiding jurors have agreed to fulfill their civic duty to serve. They have NOT agreed to spend the day, weeks or even months in close quarters with convicted gang-bangers.”
Supporters of the new law, including the ACLU, stated that the new law was necessary in order to ensure that California’s trial juries better reflect the diversity of this state. They noted that the state’s prior felony jury exclusion had an adverse impact on racial minorities, especially black and African American men. One of the four plaintiffs in this case is an African American man, one is a Hispanic man, and one is a Hispanic woman.
According to one committee report on the bill, “despite California’s recent efforts to reform the criminal justice system, one in three African American men will be convicted of a felony at some point in their lives. Denying over 30% of a demographic group the ability to serve on a jury significantly limits a litigant from that group the ability to try a case before a jury of their peers and disproportionately excludes that segment of the population from the vital democratic institution of jury service.”
According to another committee report on the bill, “automatic jury exclusions of those with criminal records should be abandoned.” This position is based, in part, upon the results of scholarly research which concluded that “juror eligibility facilitates changes in convicted felons’ self-concepts, promoting prosocial identity transformation, tempering the stigma of a felony conviction and prompting the discovery of self worth.”