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Generalizations are often used as reasons to take actions against certain people. When using generalizations, we usually find ways to distance ourselves from “them” or “those people.” Generalizations lead to stereotypes, which in turn become the basis for discrimination. Our media often shapes what people think, and then contributes to the discrimination. Occasionally, we have so-called scientists offer “evidenced-based” reasons or generalizations which really make them sound valid.

In California courts, generalizations steer the process. We don’t let those with felony records serve as jurors, and there are thousands of such citizens. One reason given is the generalization that they would be biased against the government or police officers. Another generalization is that they might get violent while being locked in the jury room. Finally, because of their criminal conviction, they have demonstrated a “willful” disregard for the laws of the land, thus making them unfit to serve.

America prides itself on being the country of fairness and second chances. We incarcerate people, not just for the sake of removing them from society, but to rehabilitate them. What does a second chance mean if they can never serve on a jury or, in some states, never vote? America has the highest rate of incarceration of any industrialized nation. Scientific data indicates this mass incarceration does not result in safer outcomes for society. Our criminal justice system is in many respects rigged against the poor and people of color. Author and Law Professor Michelle Alexander refers to our current system as “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” in her bestselling book.

No, we are not all treated the same. Actor Robert Downey, Jr. has a storied history of drug abuse. Today, he is starring in one of the highest-grossing films of all time, “The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.” If you look at his Hollywood bio, he is one of the “most respected actors in America.” His bio also mentions his numerous arrests, incarcerations and failed attempts at rehabilitation. Yet he is allowed to be “Iron Man” because America gave him multiple chances, and he is turning his life around. God bless him and all those who survive the scourge of drug abuse. But for the average inner-city resident there is hardly the same Hollywood ending.

Tagged and stigmatized with criminal records, it becomes nearly impossible to live as a participatory citizen, such as performing jury duty.

Tagged and stigmatized with criminal records, it becomes nearly impossible to live as a participatory citizen, such as performing jury duty. One of the concerns voiced about ex-felons on a jury is that they might hold bias against law enforcement. Aren’t we really saying they may have deeper understanding and truth about law enforcement in given situations? Six police officers, three Black and three White, were recently indicted in Baltimore. They bound the hands and feet of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, threw him in the back of a van without restraints and bounced him. They broke his back and killed him. They prepared false reports, and but for the video and the death of Mr. Gray, he would have been charged with a crime. Clearly this is not the first time police in Baltimore have used this tactic. Had Mr. Gray lived, and there was no video, he would be a classified felon and unable to serve on a jury, even though he was not guilty of anything.

In 1971 there was a riot in Attica State Prison in New York. Eleven guards and 32 inmates died during the prison riot, all but four were shot by state troopers. To this day, over 40 years later, the files of the investigation remain sealed! If there were a trial, who better to serve on a jury panel than a formerly incarcerated person who is familiar with prison life?

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In Los Angeles, putting aside the recent killings of Brandon Glenn and Ezell Ford, what about the consent decree regarding the Rampart scandal? There, an entire division of the Los Angeles Police Department was basically proven to be corrupt. While only two or three officers were actually jailed, what about the thousands who suffered for years under the tyranny of the CRASH Units (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) in other divisions aside from Rampart. They would make fine jurors as they would not be surprised by the police brutality.

Further generalizing, we assume all so-called “gang members” have committed crimes, so we allow police officers to place names in a State Gang Data Base with no trial or evidence that they have done anything wrong. This data base can be used as evidence of prior bad acts, even though there is no basis for the claim. They can then receive harsher sentences for things that would have otherwise been dismissed, but for their names being on the list.

Generalizing marches on. We have been conditioned to believe more illicit drugs are consumed in Compton than Beverly Hills. The fact is the opposite is true. What is also true is that while men and women in Compton are arrested for drug possession every day, Beverly Hills remains friendly for wealthy drug possession.

Like the right to vote, jury service is a right. Anyone eligible to vote should be able to serve on a jury. A jury of one’s peers should be just that. Ironically, the police can exempt themselves from jury service when they claim to be too busy. Well, there should be no exceptions for jury service other than specific personal hardships. Conversely, at the point someone has completed their debt to society, they should be eligible to serve on a jury. Criminal records should not be life sentences, nor should they be a license for discrimination.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me. Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you? ‘ And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.’” Matthew 25:42

I agree with Jesus. We should stop the generalizing, and in our compassion and fairness reinstate our values of community and citizenry. Jury duty is central in this value, and required in the healing.

Susan Burton

Susan Burton
A New Way of Life

Assembly Bill 324 (Jones-Sawyer) seeks restoration of jury duty rights for the formerly incarcerated and is currently being heard in the California State Assembly. A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project is sponsor of the bill.