The California jury system came a major step closer to fairly representing their communities and the criminal defendants they deliberate over thanks to newly signed Senate Bill 310.
Starting in 2020, most former felons who have served their time and been discharged from parole or probation will no longer be excluded from jury service.
“Over 30% of Black men were eliminated from the juror pool, simply because of a felony conviction in their past,” Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods told SQ News. “First seeing that as a young trial lawyer 20 years ago, I knew it was fundamentally wrong and unfair.
“The concept of ‘a jury of your peers,’ does that exist? No.”
Woods said he has still “never” looked at a client’s jury and seen what he considers to be a fair demographic panel. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Jennie Otis, a Deputy Public Defender in Woods’ office, agrees. “Even before voir dire, you never need two hands to count the number of Blacks available in the jury pool,” she said. “That doesn’t make sense in counties like Alameda.”
As a passionate defense attorney and Black man himself, Woods continues to advocate for a justice system that accurately reflects society’s diversity. Three years ago, he started working on and lobbying for SB310.
“Doing more research and finding out a felony convic- tion, no matter how old it was, prevented you from serving on a jury—that seemed asinine,”
said Woods. “Even those who had their felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors still couldn’t serve as jurors.”
State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) co-authored SB310’s current version and finally succeeded in getting it passed this year.
“There’s no way SB310 would have been possible without Senator Skinner’s hard work and commitment,” said Woods. “She carried the bill to the finish line.
“I thought it was going to take a lot longer, honestly.”
CSU Long Beach Professor of Law James Binall, J.D., L.L.M., Ph.D., testified along-side Woods at the Assembly.
“He is formerly incarcerated, has been convicted of a felony and is one of the foremost scholars on this issue throughout the nation,” said Woods.
Chief Deputy Public Defender for Solano County Oscar Bobrow also testified before the Senate about the positive impact SB 310 could make.
Furthermore, the Alameda County Public Defenders’ Office submitted their own letter of support and strategized responses against SB310’s inevitable opposition.
“We’re not done with the work. There are still other issues we need to address.”
As the legislative team leader for the Alameda office, Deputy Public Defender Peter Van Oosling worked behind the scenes to coordinate all the relevant information. “His work was critical,” said Woods.
Just this July, Woods penned an Op/Ed article for the San Francisco Chronicle, “A jury of your peers? Not for Black men in California.”
“That got a lot of atten- tion,” he beamed. “That was good.”
“I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat at the defense table with a young African American client who was excited to prove his innocence, only to see his enthusiasm replaced with hopelessness and dread once he saw the jury,” Woods wrote in the Op/Ed.
“It’s difficult to tell a young man that he shouldn’t feel defeated when faced with the fact that not a single per- son who will be deciding his future looks like him.”
Enthused by the potential improvement of future jury trial fairness, Woods wanted to make sure everyone involved in SB310’s pass- ing got credit for the team effort.
“Our post-bar clerk, Kendra Clark, created a 50-state survey of laws regarding people with felony convictions serving on juries,” he said. “This document has been relied on throughout this process—including by legislators in Sacramento.”
Woods also mentioned Assembly Member Rob Bonta (D-Oakland, Alameda, San Leandro) as a prominent advocate of SB310. About Bonta and Skinner, he said, “They’re both good on criminal justice reform.”
Sex offenders under Penal Code 290 still do not qualify for jury service. And, the former felons that are eligible must be completely free from any kind of post-conviction community supervision.
“We’re not done with the work,” said Woods. “There are still other issues we need to address.”
Woods explained how, right now, lists of potential jurors are pulled solely from voter registration and California driver’s license identification card information.
“We need to expand the list we get our jurors from,” he said.
Woods hopes to explore expanding the jury pool database to include tax-filers and utility bill consumers. He also wants to see legislation that addresses adequate financial compensation for jury service, rather than the current system where most jurors feel they are sacrificing wages.