A Maryland bill under consideration for a fourth time in Annapolis would provide an avenue for people formerly incarcerated for a year or more to serve on juries.
The legislation would also enable people to qualify for jury service who have charges pending that could result in at least a year’s imprisonment, according to a nonpartisan outline of the bill. Sponsors and supporters say it would help people formerly incarcerated better reintegrate into society and make Maryland jury pools more representative.
“The status of a person’s current criminal charges and criminal history does not and should not determine their ability to serve on a jury for the rest of their lives,” state Del. Nicole Williams, the bill’s co-sponsor and a Democrat from Prince George’s County, said during testimony earlier this month.
Shrinking cities like Baltimore are burning through their eligible pools of jurors quickly; last year, 247,840 potential jurors were deemed eligible in Baltimore, less than half its population, according to a Maryland Judiciary spokeswoman. Last year, about 20,000 prospective jurors were summoned on average each month, but more than a third of those didn’t show. Another 8% of summons were undeliverable.
In addition to people who have experienced a year or more behind bars, non-U.S. citizens and non-English speakers are disqualified from serving in Maryland. And older adults, active-duty military, elected federal legislators and people with certain disabilities are exempt.
Other states, in an effort to widen the pool of prospective jurors, have made reforms. In New Mexico, the state’s top court ruled in 2016 that non-English speakers could serve. In Louisiana, a 2021 law ended a lifetime ban from jury duty for people formerly convicted of felonies. And some states have been using additional sources, aside from motor vehicle and voter registrations, to pull names.
Disqualifying prospective jurors based on criminal records is being challenged more by academics and advocates who say the measure is antiquated, said Nancy Marder, professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
“The empirical work that’s been done shows that convicted felons do not favor the criminal defendant more; they’re not more anti-government,” Marder, who also directs the Justice John Paul Stevens Jury Center at Chicago-Kent, said in an interview. “We work from a lot of preconceptions that are not necessarily borne out.”
State Sen. Jill P. Carter, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said Maryland could join a growing number of states striking restrictions on criminal records for jury service eligibility. She asked why formerly incarcerated people cannot serve on juries if there are no restrictions for doctors to serve on juries for medical malpractice cases or for police officers for cases involving the use of excessive force.
“[This] Senate bill … will be the last step in restoring full citizenship to convicted individuals who have served their debt to society,” Carter said during testimony.
Supporters of the bill who also testified — including three people formerly incarcerated — pointed out that people who have been in prison are now able to vote and run for office in Maryland.
“Have I not served my time, shown I have come home from jail and made the best of my circumstances, the best of my life?” Nicole Hanson-Mundell, the executive director of the Baltimore-based grassroots organization Out for Justice, asked a House committee. “The end result of this wide-scale exclusion is the Maryland court system cannot provide defendants a true jury by peers with similar racial and economic standards; instead, defendants face a jury that is disproportionately white, higher income and lacking experience with the systematic issues that lead many individuals to break the law in the first place.”
Particularly, Hanson-Mundell and others said, Maryland jury pools don’t well represent Black people, who account for less than a third of the state’s population but close to 70% of the Maryland jail and prison population, according to census data. Supporters said Black men especially are more likely to be excluded since they are overrepresented in the carceral system.
The bill, which passed the Senate last year and came close to passing both chambers in 2021, has won support from the Maryland Association for Justice, a specialty bar association, and the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association. In 2021, then-Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby submitted written testimony saying the legislation was “a critical step toward restoring constitutional rights,” for people formerly incarcerated.
On the other side, Steven Kroll, executive director of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, said while the organization supports “reintegration,” the bill lacks “balance” against those who commit serious offenses. He recommended “carveouts” to prevent anyone convicted of perjury, first-degree murder and rape, and witness and jury intimidation, among other charges, from serving on a jury.
“For serious crimes, you forfeit your right,” Kroll said. “The line has to be drawn in the sand; certain crimes there has to be some sort of punishment.”
Carter, in an interview, said attorneys can make those judgments during jury screening. “We should allow that process to work,” she said, adding that people standing trial should, per U.S. Supreme Court guidance, have a fair cross section of the community for prospective jurors.
She hopes the bill’s chances of passing are better this year given the success of previous legislation that granted voting rights to previously incarcerated people. She also thinks a Democratic governor and heavily Democratic general assembly will help.
The bill also has won the support of Attorney General Anthony Brown, who in a letter of support called it “sound policy.” Representatives for Gov. Wes Moore declined to comment.
During committee meetings, the bill appeared to receive some bipartisan support. After hearing testimony, State Sen. Mike McKay, a Republican who represents Western Maryland and a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he struggled to understand opposition to the bill.
“I’m a father of eight, so my wife and I know a lot about: You’re either pregnant or you’re not pregnant,” McKay said. “So, either you’re redeemed, and you’ve paid back your time to society, or you’re not. And I understand those crimes are concerning, definitely, and heinous. But if they’ve spent the time, I don’t understand the difference. It’s either being pregnant or not.”