At about this time each year, we are greeted with the latest criminal justice measures to be voted on by the state Legislature. Last year brought us Senate Bill 1437, which relaxed the law of murder and specifically allowed for murder convicts to petition to wipe away their convictions and be released. As we continue to address the fallout from last year’s laws, new proposals are now advancing in the Legislature that, if passed, would further hobble a criminal justice system that is becoming unrecognizable to that which provided decades of falling crime rates. One such proposal, Senate Bill 310, would allow convicted felons to serve as trial jurors in criminal and civil cases.
California, like 28 other states and the entire federal system, does not currently permit anyone convicted of a felony to be a trial juror. Of the states that do permit this practice, there are significant restrictions upon which convicted felons may be considered. Senate Bill 310, which was passed in the state Senate earlier this year after a party-line vote, would allow all convicted felons to serve on criminal and civil juries. This would mean that convicted killers, sex offenders, gang members, drug dealers – you name it – will be permitted to be trial jurors. The bill even includes felons that are still on parole, as well as felons who are still serving their sentences on alternatives to custody like probation and electronic monitoring. The only condition is that the felon is not currently in jail. Ironically, the very police officers and detectives that apprehended these felons in the first place will remain excluded from jury service.
Trial juries perform an essential function of our criminal justice system, and this vital role should not be entrusted to those who have proven unworthy of that trust. Jurors who are compelled to spend days or weeks at a time with fellow jurors should be afforded a safe environment to perform their civic duty – it is the least we could do to honor the jury’s service. Nonetheless, even modest amendments, such as excluding violent felons and sex offenders from jury service, or requiring that felons remain conviction-free for five years in order to qualify as a juror have been rejected by the bill’s proponents.
Increasingly, criminal statutes acknowledge that people can learn from their mistakes and reform their behavior, but this bill incorporates no guidelines or standards of reform at all. Rather, it pretends that everyone not currently in jail is the same, ignoring proven criminal histories. It doesn’t encourage reform, it merely ignores reality. If signed into law, the bill would lengthen the already time-consuming jury selection process, affect our ability to secure unanimous verdicts, and change the experience for all jurors called to serve.
Like allowing the proverbial fox to guard the hen house, permitting all convicted felons to serve on criminal juries is designed specifically to benefit one group: in this case, criminals. More than ever, efforts to control crime must be made not only at police stations and in courtrooms, but at the ballot box as well. I hope you’ll join me in opposition to what I view as misguided legislation by contacting our state Assembly and Senate representatives — Rudy Salas, Vince Fong, Melissa Hurtado and Shannon Grove — and encouraging them to represent your position in Sacramento.
Cynthia Zimmer is the elected District Attorney of Kern County.