Social Issues

Bill advances to end ban on jury service for people with criminal … – New Jersey Monitor


Lawmakers advanced a bill Monday that would allow people with criminal convictions to serve on juries — except anyone convicted of murder or aggravated sexual assault, a controversial carveout that critics decried as anti-democratic.

The measure is a major criminal justice reform meant to expand the jury pool, reduce racial disparities in juries, and signal to formerly incarcerated people that jury duty is both their right and their civic obligation.

It also would bring New Jersey into line with the rest of the nation. New Jersey now bans anyone who’s been charged with any indictable offense from jury service for life; only four other states — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, and South Carolina — are similarly restrictive.

But Monday, a surprise amendment excluding people convicted of murder and aggravated sexual assault dominated the discussion and kept many supporters from celebrating when legislators in the Assembly’s judiciary committee advanced the bill.

Social justice advocates, including several who have served decades behind bars for murder, spent nearly two hours asking committee members to eliminate the exclusion.

“I oppose this bill because it would leave me out. And it would leave out thousands of people, like myself, who did something years ago, and we can’t undo it. So my question to this wonderful and illustrious committee is: When do I become like you? When do I become a full citizen?” said Antonne Henshaw, who served a 30-year sentence for a 1988 murder in Camden. “Every time I turn around, my conviction is used to dehumanize me over and over and over again.”

Ronald Pierce is deputy ombudsperson in the state Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson, a prison oversight office. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Ronald Pierce ticked off a list of his accomplishments since he got out of prison in 2016 after serving 30 years for murder, including his social advocacy work, legislative testimony on criminal justice reform issues, and recent appointment as deputy ombudsperson in a state prison oversight office.

“You trust me to do all these things,” Pierce said. “You keep saying I’m part of society, I’m part of society. And then on a Saturday, you say, ‘Yeah, but you’re not really. Yeah, no, we don’t trust you to sit on a jury, even though we trust you to do everything else.’”

Clarence T. Gadson, who served time for a 1976 murder, told legislators eliminating the jury service prohibition should apply “to all of us or none of us.”

“How do you look at someone say, ‘Well, they’re half human because they committed a crime?’” Gadson said.

Chino Ortiz, founder of a support group for returning citizens in Newark, got out of prison in 2016 after serving 30 years for his role in a fatal robbery.

“I am not my past,” Ortiz said. “I’m opposed to those carveouts, because it implies that I am a carveout. I am not my worst day, and I am not a carveout.”

Liza Weisberg, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, echoed that sentiment.

“New Jersey shouldn’t be in the business of rationing civil rights based on a judgment of moral worth,” Weisberg said.

Other advocates said attorneys can strike potential jurors they find objectionable during pre-trial jury screening, making the legislation’s offense carveout unnecessary.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) assured advocates the committee would share their concerns with the bill’s sponsors, Assemblywomen Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer), Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), and Shanique Speight (D-Essex).

“Sometimes you don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Mukherji said. “You make compromises in order to take the first step towards achieving something … it’s just part of the process of seeing something get done.”

Henshaw responded that the bill, if it’s passed with the carveout, would be a “Pyrrhic victory.”

“Let’s work together so it’s actually a true legislative victory, a pioneering victory, for the state of New Jersey,” he said.

Beyond the offense carveout, legislators also amended the bill Monday to exclude people who are incarcerated. The Assembly committee advanced the bill by a 4-1 vote, with Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-Bergen) voting no.

“The public is relying on the jury to determine innocence or guilt without a question of integrity. The defendant must have the best possible notion that they are being judged by a group of his or her peers,” Auth said. “By doing this, we’re denying the public and the defendant the best possible opportunity for justice.”

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson), has yet to be heard by that body’s judiciary committee.

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