For years, New York’s progressive lawmakers have suggested that their criminal-justice reforms have empowered black citizens and challenged white privilege.

When the Jury of Our Peers Act hit the state assembly floor in April, progressive lawmakers tried another tack: presenting convicted felons as the genuine “peers” of black New Yorkers.

Sponsored by State Senator Cordell Cleare and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, the bill would repeal New York’s ban on felons serving on juries. Stalled in committee in 2023, the new measure has 54 cosponsors across the state assembly and senate. Ironically, the bill, whose progressive supporters view it as a boon to black people, would redound to the benefit of the recently convicted former president, Donald Trump.

The bill’s proponents are not actually seeking to allow convicts to prove themselves worthy of civic obligations. New Yorkers with a single felony conviction can already get their right to jury service restored through an administrative process. Instead, as with other recent reforms, the true purpose of this legislation is to burden prosecutors, tipping the scales of justice against those whom they represent: the People of New York.

Supporters get away with this by redefining “fairness” as favoring criminals, and by lumping together criminals and blacks. This spring in Albany, for example, New York Civil Liberties Union executive Perry Grossman claimed that “For decades . . . our state’s jury ban has shut thousands of black New Yorkers out of civic engagement, denying people of color the ability to fully participate in our state’s democratic process.”

The idea that expanding felons’ rights will help black New Yorkers is misguided, of course, and also smacks of racism. Elevating black felons isn’t a boon to the communities they prey upon. Indeed, violent crime in New York City is predominantly intra-racial: last year, both 57.1 percent of murder victims and 57.0 percent of murder suspects were black. Similarly, 65.6 percent of shooting victims were black, as were 65.6 percent of shooting suspects.

The bill’s most consequential result would not be to shift the racial composition of juries but to tilt the scales of justice yet further toward criminal defendants. Potential jurors who are convicted felons would still be unlikely to serve; instead, prosecutors would be forced to use some of their limited number of peremptory challenges during jury selection to reject them. After all, would a reasonable assistant district attorney allow a gang member with multiple convictions to adjudicate justice for a victim of gang assault? Restoring felons’ jury-service rights would thus create another advantage for defendants and their attorneys, whose own peremptory challenges would remain undiminished.

The law’s elected sponsors argue that the current ban on felons’ jury service “helps perpetuate the cycle of mass incarceration that ensnares thousands every year,” and that “our criminal system is stacked against . . . low-income Black people.” But why would a jury of exclusively law-abiding citizens be more likely to penalize innocent black defendants? Anyone called for jury duty in New York City can attest to the melting-pot mix of the city’s racial and socioeconomic pool. By insisting that the status quo “robs all of us of our right to a jury of our peers,” Aubry and Cleare are implying that felons are definitionally blacks’ peers.

Our system is stacked not against criminals but against victims. Guilty pleas in New York State have fallen from half of all disposed cases in 2019 to just over a third last year.

Even the number of trial verdicts fell from 2,663 in 2019 to just 1,737 in the same period of 2023.

In New York City criminal court, guilty pleas have dropped further—to under a quarter of prosecuted cases as of 2022. Meantime, dismissals have ballooned from 45 percent of cases in 2019 to a full two-thirds last year. Crime victims—in New York City, they are disproportionately black—stand increasingly less chance of receiving justice.

With each criminal-justice “reform,” the deck is stacked higher against prosecutors. Discovery reform in 2020, in particular, created an impossible compliance burden, requiring assistant district attorneys to triage their caseloads and dismiss hundreds of thousands of viable cases.

With the scales tilted so heavily toward criminals, it makes sense that the loudest advocates of the Jury of Our Peers Act are those whom it truly does help: felons too lazy to apply for jury rights through existing mechanisms or who have committed too many crimes to be eligible, and the attorneys who represent them. Among the bill’s leading proponents is Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem staff attorney Daudi Justin, who filed a claim in U.S. District Court this year arguing that the current jury service ban is unconstitutional. According to court documents, Justin, after his felony drug conviction: “chose not to avail himself of New York's process for restoring jury service eligibility ‘after learning how burdensome and intrusive the process is.’”

Justin’s advocacy highlights how much easier his job would be if more potential jurors are past clients. “[T]he juries I see as a public defender in Manhattan do not share life experiences with people who have been charged with crimes,” he explained, “and this means that people I represent are not afforded a jury of our peers.”

New Yorkers need to tell the legislature that such patronizing racism has nothing to do with fairness. True fairness is when crime victims—of any race—stand a fighting chance in court.

Photo: JasonDoiy / E+ via Getty Images


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