City officials are hoping a new state law allowing people convicted of felonies to serve as jurors will make trials fairer for black defendants in San Francisco.
While the courts have long held that defendants are entitled to a jury of their peers, black defendants often have their fates decided by juries with no black members.
Senate Bill 310, from state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is designed to correct that problem by expanding jury pools to include those with felony convictions in their past.
The legislation will restore the right to serve on a jury for people convicted of felonies who are not serving time in prison, on parole or under supervision beginning Jan. 1. But it excludes people who register as a sex offender because of a felony conviction.
Proponents of the legislation say the change will allow the disproportionate number of black people who have been convicted of felonies to serve on juries.
More than 28 percent of men serving time in state prison were black in 2017, while black men made up less than 6 percent of the state population that year, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.
The new legislation is supported by both Public Defender Manohar Raju and incoming District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Boudin called the legislation a “significant step” toward ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“Up to now, California law bars anyone with a felony conviction from serving on a jury,” Boudin said. “This disproportionately silenced people of color and prevented many people from being tried by a jury of their peers — a fundamental pillar of our justice system.”
For Raju, the change in state law means people with real experiences in the criminal justice system will be able to share their “invaluable” perspectives in the jury room.
He also said the legislation will help people with felony convictions reengage in society.
“It is very common for an African American client to look around the courtroom and feel that they do not have a jury of their peers, as there may not be a single seated African American juror,” Raju said.
“During jury selection,” he said, “We have heard multiple white jurors comment that they did not think our clients could receive a fair trial without more diversity.”
When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law in October, Skinner issued a statement saying that “it’s almost impossible” for black men to get a jury of their peers.
“Existing law excludes 30 percent of California’s black male residents from ever serving on a jury,” Skinner said. “SB 310 rights that wrong by giving those with a former felony conviction the ability to be at the heart of a fair and impartial judicial process.”
More than 20 other states, including Colorado, Illinois and Maine, already allow people with felony convictions to serve as jurors, according to her office.
Skinner’s office said attorneys will still be able to use a peremptory challenge during jury selection to remove a prospective juror who is a convicted felon.