According to Prison Policy Initiative, white people are proportionately underrepresented in prisons and jails, while Black, Native, and Latino people are overrepresented. In a graph showing the racial makeup of U.S. prisons – Black people and white people each make up 38% of the prison population, while the U.S. population is 60% white and 13% Black. When Black, Latino, and Native prisoners are counted together, they constitute 61% of the state and federal prison population but only 32% of the total population.
Socialist Unity Party supports the struggles of all prisoners; prisoners of conscience, prisoners of war, and prisoners imprisoned because of their political beliefs. We believe that all prisoners are political prisoners because of the racist, corrupt and greedy profit-based system we live in. We want to build solidarity with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals by building coalitions, uniting all oppressed nationalities, and fighting side by side to shut down the U.S. prison-industrial complex.
We understand that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed from the point of contact with the police to the arrest, trial and conviction. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a criminal trial by an impartial jury. But there is no requirement that the jury reflect the racial diversity of the community from which the person on trial comes.
We can list the impediments to a jury of your peers in a capitalist society, but we must ask ourselves if there are any benefits to standing up against racist courts. When I asked formerly incarcerated author and community activist Curtis Howard about his thoughts on jury duty, his reply was:
“The experience is worth it; seeing a jury pool with people who look like me, from my community and knows some of the stuff that I’ve been through may have curved my option of taking a plea bargain or having a judge decide my fate.”
Howard adds that the experience of going through the whole process, the orientation in the jury hall, observing the people, hearing your name called for a jury pool, and being selected as a juror is worth it.
On jury duty
I have been summoned for jury duty many times during the last 30 years. My name was called to be a potential juror three times. I reported to a courtroom and swore under oath to tell the truth when answering a series of questions. One of those times, I was selected as a juror in a case. The initial jury pool in the courtroom was full, with about 60 potential jurors. There was a laminated sheet of paper with a list of questions on one side and our juror number on the other. I was very surprised to be selected as a juror after answering all the questions from the judge and the lawyers as truthfully as I could.
It was a DUI case, which I thought was not a big deal. After we all answered the questions on a sheet, the judge and lawyers excused people for various reasons. Over half of the people were left with 12 in the jury box when the selection process began. The lawyers took turns using what I learned was called peremptory challenges — challenges used without any explanation or stated reason.
This process was like musical chairs that began with the jurors in the jury box. The lawyers would excuse a juror, and the next juror in sequence took that seat. I was further down in the numbers and thought that the jury would be complete before they reached my number, but they kept dismissing and reseating until my number was called to take a seat in the jury box. I knew I would be dismissed, but I believe they ran out of peremptory challenges, and the judge announced this was our jury, and we took another oath. This process took two days.
I won’t go into all the trial details — opening, evidence and closing statements took one day. It took three days for 12 of us to deliberate and reach a verdict that we all agreed on. I will remind you this was a case of two counts — DUI and blood alcohol level above 0.08%.
After we reached a verdict, we were taken back into the courtroom. As the presiding juror, I handed the verdict to the bailiff. I saw the look of relief on the face of the defendant as the judge read not guilty and then thanked the jury for our service.
The process took six days (eight, including the weekend). I felt it was worth it; some thought it wasn’t.
The crime of all-white juries
This experience confirmed a Duke University study of a decade of criminal convictions in Florida, which found that all-white jury pools convicted Black defendants 16% more than white defendants. But when just one Black person was added to the jury pool, the gap in conviction rates nearly disappeared.
The whole experience of going into a courthouse is scary and intimidating; security checks, police everywhere, almost as if you are on trial. However, we must understand that it is our right to be on a jury and our choice whether we want to serve on a jury. We must not let this corrupt system make that decision for us.
We must remember: There is a long and ugly history of excluding Black people from juries, particularly in the South, and we haven’t figured out a way to escape this legacy.
In the case of the Scottsboro brothers in 1935, eight of nine Black youths were found guilty of raping two white women and sentenced to death. In the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury of this vicious murder that they openly bragged about and later admitted to. In the 2006 case of the Jena 6, Mychal Bell, 17, was convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated battery facing 22 years.
Jury duty is not a solution to ending mass incarceration, but it may save one person, one family, one community the expense and grief of a loved one spending decades in prison. We know that Black, Brown, and poor people make up the majority of those in prison, and they are relying on us on the outside to fight for their freedom by organizing, educating and strategizing on ways of ending this system of mass incarceration by abolishing the prison-industrial complex.
Black and poor people can be and will be impartial and are the most qualified to be on any jury. The system knows this, and that is why Black, Brown, and poor people are the first to be excluded in these proceedings, by making it difficult for us to take the time because of the economic and domestic hardships we face.
I received a check for $60 for my five days of jury service over ten years ago. Today in California, jury duty compensation remains at $15 a day. Fifteen dollars a day is a financial hardship for poor people and people living on the edge, especially today in California. Jurors whose employers do not pay for jury duty should get paid a minimum wage from the state. Single parents needing childcare should be given vouchers to cover those expenses. Employers should not penalize employees for serving on a jury, whether for one day or several weeks. The state should provide these incentives to show how valuable your service is and how much you are needed.
The solution to mass Incarceration is to abolish capitalism.
Stop locking up our people, Free our aging freedom fighters, Free our youth, Free them all!
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