The Roundtable on Racial Disparities in Massachusetts Criminal Courts was created by Sandra Susan Smith, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, faculty director of the Program in Criminal Justice and Management (PCJ), and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. Smith established the Roundtable to help to address long-standing racial inequities in Massachusetts’ court system. The most recently published research brief is from the Jury Selection working group, one of eight groups that make up the 27-member Roundtable. The brief: “Inequitable and Undemocratic: A Research Brief on Jury Exclusion in Massachusetts and a Multipronged Approach to Dismantle It,” examines discrimination in jury selection, specifically among the formerly incarcerated, and was co-authored by Katy Naples-Mitchell, program director for the PCJ, and Wiener Center researcher Haruka Margaret Braun. HKS asked Smith and the authors about the significance of the research. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Katy Naples-Mitchell on the left and Haruka Margaret Braun on the right.

Q: How does this research fit into the work of the Roundtable? Why take on the issue of felony-based jury exclusion?  

Smith: Overall, the goal of the Roundtable is to research and support future policies, practices, and procedures in Massachusetts that will help to eradicate sources of racial inequities and resulting disparities in the courts. And Massachusetts’s jury selection process is rife with inequities that produce racially disparate outcomes. Research reveals that the lack of diversity in the jury pool and the jury box has negative consequences for Black and Brown people with cases before the court. Indeed, during the last few years, multiple convictions have been reversed by Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court based on allegations of racial bias in jury selection—prosecutors removing jurors of color at higher rates than white jurors, often through peremptory strikes or for cause challenges. These represent two modes through which jury diversity is hindered. Felony-based jury exclusion is yet another. Mindful of this, a small but growing number of states, including some of our neighbors, have eliminated the exclusion altogether [Maine] or have put significant limits on the number of years that individuals with felony convictions are disqualified from jury service [Connecticut]. Members of the Roundtable propose that Massachusetts do the same. 

 

Q: How did you get involved with the Roundtable?

Naples-Mitchell: I joined the PCJ as program director in September 2022, and engagement with the Roundtable quickly became one of my key responsibilities. Prior to coming to the Kennedy School, I spent four years at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, where much of my work focused on the racial injustice of criminalization, policing, and punishment in Massachusetts and around the country. The Roundtable was a natural extension of that work.  

Braun: One of the reasons I chose Harvard College was the promise of engaging in research with world-renowned faculty. While looking for opportunities at the intersection of racial justice, public policy, and criminal law, I was fortunate to cross paths with Professor Smith through the Radcliffe Research Partnership. I supported her book project, “A Difference A Day Makes,” where we investigated the devastating consequences of pre-trial detention. From there, I was invited to work as a research assistant for the Roundtable, where I supported work related to jury selection and parole in Massachusetts Criminal Courts.

 

Q: The study identifies distinct racial bias in jury exclusion. How so? 

Braun: For the purposes of our study, jury exclusion refers to preventing a person from serving as a juror on the basis of a prior felony record, a pending felony charge, or having a loved one who has been arrested, prosecuted, or convicted of a crime. Rooted in a tradition of English common law that was codified during the Jim Crow era, a majority of states continue this practice of barring people from one of the core rights and responsibilities of citizenship based on their criminal system ties. Given issues of systemic and structural racism in the Massachusetts criminal system, this exclusion disproportionately targets people of color. 

Using existing public data sources, for the first time we estimate that at least 95,000 people are disqualified from jury service in Massachusetts by virtue of current limits on jury eligibility that disqualify prospective jurors within seven years of a felony conviction, who are facing a felony allegation, or who are currently incarcerated. And as predicted, this barrier to civic participation disproportionately affects people of color, reducing the diversity and representativeness of the Commonwealth’s jury pool.  

Naples-Mitchell: In Massachusetts, for similar conduct relative to their white counterparts, people of color are more likely to be charged with more serious crimes that carry higher penalties and are more likely to be sentenced to harsher punishments for the same offense. Based on new data provided by the Massachusetts Trial Court and published for the first time in this research brief, as compared to white people, and relative to their population representation, Black people are more than four times as likely to have been convicted of a felony within the last seven years, and Hispanic people are more than 2.5 times as likely to have been convicted of a felony within the last seven years. Black and Hispanic people are also disproportionately charged with felony offenses, and barred from jury service while a felony case remains open, even if it is later dismissed or results in an acquittal at trial.  

Moreover, the sweep of exclusion is broader than this statutory disqualification. Even when someone is called to the courthouse as a prospective juror, Massachusetts officials routinely exclude people with any criminal record, or people with loved ones with a criminal record, from jury service through mechanisms like for cause challenges and peremptory strikes. This results in racial disparities in seated juries, as people of color, and Black people in particular, are more likely to experience arrest, prosecution, or conviction, and are more likely to have family members with those experiences than any other racial or ethnic group.  

Sandra Susan Smith.

“Research makes clear that diverse juries are better juries.”

Sandra Susan Smith

Q: What policies do you identify that can help remove the barriers to jury service for people with criminal records? 

Braun: Our research brief presents a series of evidence-based reforms based on existing policies implemented in other jurisdictions to remove the legal (de jure) and practical (de facto) barriers to jury service for people with criminal legal system ties. First, following longstanding practice in Maine, the Massachusetts Legislature could eliminate the statutory felony disqualification and preserve the presumption of innocence by removing the legal barrier to jury service for people merely accused of felony crimes.  

Turning to de facto exclusion, state officials could create rules for when parties can request jurors’ criminal histories following the guidance of the New Jersey Supreme Court, revise the juror questionnaire, and set limits on reasons for peremptory strikes that have historically been used to disproportionately target people of color, a policy already adopted in states like Washington and California. Research from California and Louisiana suggests that notifying people after their rights are restored and taking affirmative steps to ensure their automatic inclusion in the jury pool without them having to personally apply will lead to the most robust inclusion of formerly excluded people in the jury pool. Finally, the report recommends allowing for a grace period after changes in jury eligibility are made, to give the Office of the Jury Commissioner time to restore people to the jury rolls, to create an effective notice campaign to reach newly eligible people, and to build trust within impacted communities. 

 

Q: What do you hope is the next step for these findings? 

Naples-Mitchell: Massachusetts has a real opportunity to join a wave of reforms aimed at improving equity in jury service, and to become a leader in producing fairer, more representative juries, improving community safety through community reintegration, and removing one of the most glaring mechanisms of racial disproportionality in composing the jury pool. We hope that this research brief can serve as a blueprint for policymakers and those engaged in the criminal legal system, in Massachusetts and beyond. 

 

Q: What is next for the Jury Selection working group?   

Smith: In the final year of the Roundtable, the working group is interested in exploring further when people of color are being lost in Massachusetts's process of summonsing jurors. There are many stages of the jury selection process that create opportunities to diminish jury diversity. As we have seen with this paper, exclusions represent one way, but under-represented pools of jurors also result from other mechanisms, including a high number of undeliverable jury summons, an issue far more pervasive in communities of color. The Jury Selection group is interested in better understanding what strategies might be deployed to reduce or eliminate these barriers in hopes of achieving something close to full participation. 

This also includes expanding our discussions to include exclusions based on non-citizenship and limited English language proficiency. Importantly, research makes clear that diverse juries are better juries. Not only do they engage in higher-quality deliberations, but they make fewer factual errors. And they are more likely to be perceived by the public to be fair and impartial. 

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