Striking potential jurors solely on the basis of their race is unlawful, yet somehow, almost 135 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, people of color routinely find themselves excluded from jury service because of their race. This is especially true in southern states and in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases.
The information comes as a result of a comprehensive study conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative, and the results are as depressing as they are disturbing. For two years EJI conducted research in eight southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee), including interviewing over 100 African-American citizens who had been excluded from jury service based on race. EJI also reviewed volumes of court records and documents and found evidence of wide-spread, persistent racial discrimination in jury selection. According to Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s Executive Director, despite efforts by courts to rectify the situation, there remains a substantial indifference to racial bias in the justice system, to the detriment of the entire system. “The underrepresentation and exclusion of people of color from juries has seriously undermined the credibility and reliability of the criminal justice system, and there is an urgent need to end this practice.”
It’s a problem the Supreme Court tried to tackle in the late 1980′s in Batson v. Kentucky, but, as Stevenson points out, just wont go away. Part of the problem is that prosecutors have become less obvious in their racial bias, striking African Americans because they appeared to have “low intelligence”, wore eyeglasses, walked a certain way, or dyed their hair. When these juror strikes were challenged by defense counsel the court stamped them as “race-neutral”. The fact that there is a lack of consistency among states and counties in the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws that protect racial minorities from illegal jury exclusion only exacerbates this more nuanced and subtle form of bias.
And the numbers don’t lie. In Houston County, Alabama, for example, 8 out of 10 African Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from death penalty cases. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, EJI found no effective African American representation on the jury in 80 percent of criminal trials. Given that African Americans are significantly over-represented as defendants in criminal trials, the fact that prosecutors are systematically doing all they can to keep them off of juries should make us all suspicious of conviction rates.
As a result of the study EJI came up with some specific and detailed recommendations that they believe would ensure full representation of people of color on juries throughout the United States within five years. Among the recommendations that would get the most push back include subjecting prosecutors to fines, penalties, and suspensions if they continue to repeatedly exclude people of color from juries. EJI recommends establishing community groups to engage in court monitoring that would help hold their district attorney accountable, including routine review of the use of peremptory strikes.
What the EJI report underscores most of all is that our criminal justice system remains racially entrenched, and because of that, the legitimacy of the hard, honest work of hundreds of thousands of people gets called into question. Our criminal justice system has, at its core, the premise that the rights of the individual should be paramount to the power of the state–it is what informs our Constitution and what informs the statutes supporting that system. But until these biases are removed, the entire system remains weakened, which ultimately serves no one well.
photo courtesy of r.s.m.b. Sees via Flickr