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Fighting for Jury Diversity in the Criminal Legal System

Strategic Initiatives – Struggle For Justice

Fighting for Jury Diversity in the Criminal Legal System

Since its inception, our criminal legal system has perpetuated racial injustice. And the damaging collateral consequences of becoming ensnared by the system are extensive: Criminal records follow people for life, limiting job prospects, access to housing and benefits, and inhumane incarceration results in trauma. Black and Brown New Yorkers disproportionately bear the weight of this unfair system. Whether it’s fighting for marijuana legalization, police transparency and accountability, or the rights of incarcerated people, the NYCLU works tirelessly to reduce the number of New Yorkers who are arrested and imprisoned, make sure everyone accused of a crime gets a fair trial, and ensure that the formerly incarcerated can re-engage fully with civic life.

In a case that’s the first of its kind in the country, the NYCLU and the law firm Clarick Gueron Reisbaum in December filed a class-action lawsuit in federal district court in Manhattan challenging the permanent exclusion of people with felony convictions from serving on juries. New York has a statute that bars any person convicted of a felony from state jury service for life. Decades of racialized policing and prosecution targeting Black residents in Manhattan has resulted in the mass disenfranchisement of Black people—and Black men, in particular—from the jury pool. Our lawsuit asks the federal courts to invalidate the jury-disqualification scheme in Manhattan on the grounds that it violates the federal Constitution’s ban on racial discrimination.

Our extensive analysis has uncovered that the state’s jury-disqualification law has resulted in a jury system where approximately 25 percent of Black residents of Manhattan, who would otherwise be eligible for jury service, are disqualified—and nearly 40 percent of Black men are disqualified. By contrast, approximately three percent of otherwise-eligible residents who are not Black are disqualified from serving. While all of New York suffers from racialized policing and prosecution, Manhattan has the largest disparities in felony convictions between Black and white people of any county in the state: Between 2002 and 2019, Black people in Manhattan were convicted of felonies at a rate more than 21 times greater than white people.

Our lead plaintiff, Daudi Justin, is a Harlem resident and public defender who is himself disqualified from jury service because of a 2009 conviction for drug possession that today is classified as a misdemeanor. Mr. Justin’s plight is a stark example of how this jury exclusion relegates too many Black New Yorkers to second-class citizenship. Jury panels lacking in diversity and experience prevent many of the accused from being judged by a jury of their peers and receiving a fair trial—while at the same time denying many the opportunity to fully participate in the democratic process. Additionally, the inclusion of the perspectives of jurors with firsthand experience of the criminal legal system is essential to its fair application.

The jury box holds law enforcement and the courts accountable and the suppression of jury diversity undermines public confidence in the justice system. Diversity in jury pools is fundamental to applying justice equally. A jury system that underrepresents Black New Yorkers becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that sends more Black New Yorkers to jail. Restoring the right of people with felony convictions to serve on juries is a racial justice imperative.

In conjunction with the Justin v. Tingling lawsuit, the NYCLU is legislatively pushing to change the jury disqualification statute and engaging in a statewide education and advocacy campaign on the civil consequences of criminal convictions in New York and their disproportionate impact on communities of color. Through workshops, community engagement, and coalition building, we are working in our communities to make sure that New Yorkers with felony convictions know their rights.

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As part of our statewide campaign for greater law enforcement transparency, we filed lawsuits against the New York State Police and the Suffolk Police Department for unlawfully withholding misconduct records they are required to disclose following the recent repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a.

Read more about our efforts to secure due process and justice for all New Yorkers.