Justice begins on the benches

Will Snowden started his career as a public defender, moving from Milwaukee to New Orleans because of the high numbers of African-Americans in prison. The city’s prison population is nearly double the US average with black men 50% more likely to be arrested than white men and one in five people jailed pre-trial or waiting a decision on alleged breaches of parole or probabation.

The Juror Project was born out of a specific frustration, that the juries he’d argue in front of weren’t diverse in either race or life experience. Changing this, be believes, is one way to change the city’s relationship with incarceration.

How does the lack of diversity contribute to the fairness of a verdict?

Besides race, the lack of diversity also comes from the way that people are representing their ideologies on the jury. For example, when potential jurors are asked if they’ve had bad experiences with police, more Black people raise their hands and are then removed.

What was your motivation to start The Juror Project?

I had a client who charged with having [a couple of] pills that you typically need to have a prescription, plus two crack rocks. He had prior felony conversions and so he got sentenced to a mandatory 20 years. [So I thought]: how can I have conversations with the folks in our community about what’s going on in our legal system and what they can do about it? When the law says that you’re entitled is a fair cross section of your community which means you should have the same diversity of the city.

As a business, what’s your biggest challenge?

Metrics for my impact, essentially how to demonstrate the impact I’m having. One way we can get that is to track how many presentations [we’ve done] and the demographic information of the jury. That’s easier to measure than changing someone’s mindset.

What’s advice you can give to other entrepreneurs?

Definitely keep track of the different variety of contacts you make as you grow your network. These are going to be your first clients and customers. I don’t think in the beginning I leveraged my network enough or put myself out there to ask them to support me.

What’s next for The Juror Project?

We want to be able to train other community leaders to give these presentations themselves. The ideal presenter is not a lawyer but rather a community leader. We also want train other public defenders. They shouldn’t just be having contact with the community in the courtroom but it’s important for them to integrate themselves into the community they represent.

The Juror Project’s three recommendations on jury diversity

Change how jurors are summoned “New Orleans uses DMV records and voter registration lists, cutting out those who don’t vote or own a car. We looked at Massachusetts who summon their jurors through an annual resident list; nothing to do with the ability to own a car or registered to vote. Our recommendation is to identify jurisdictions who aren’t abiding by this and give them recommendations to adopt these best practices.”

Think about jurors training “In New Orleans, the judges will come down and speak to the jurors [about what they can expect.] They’ll give their take on what the experience will be; the problem with that they might impart their biases, which will get transferred. Instead, we recommend using an orientation video.”

Jury duty schedule “We think jury service hour should mimic the traditional [9-5] work hours. This acknowledges that jury duty can be burdensome to the average individual.”