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EXCLUSIVE: Harlem state senator's bill would allow felons to serve on juries after completing their sentences


New York State Sen. Brian Benjamin says he wants felons " to participate fully in our democracy." (Sam Fuller / New York Daily News)

ALBANY — A Harlem state senator wants to allow convicted felons to serve on juries once they serve their time.

Sen. Brian Benjamin, a Democrat, says jury duty should be automatic once someone has paid their debt to society.

"When people have made mistakes and served their time, they've been rehabilitated, when they come back out they should be able to participate fully in our democracy," Benjamin told the Daily News. "Serving on juries, being able to vote are all part of being citizens."

Under current law, ex-felons are only permitted to serve on a jury if they obtain formal permission from the state Department of Corrections.

Benjamin is set to introduce a bill that would allow ex-cons to serve on juries once they've "completed any sentencing related to such conviction, including any period of probation or parole."

Their experience with the criminal justice system could help with the jury process, according to Benjamin.

"(President) Trump has been saying that people deserve a second chance," Benjamin said. "Included in that should be participating fully in our government in every way."

Benjamin's proposed bill faces a better chance of passage in January, when Democrats will become the majority party in the state Senate. The party already controls the Assembly.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for state Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, didn't take a position on the legislation.

"We follow the law," Chalfen told the News. "If a change in current law allows for and permits an individual with a prior felony conviction, who otherwise would be qualified, and is judged fair and impartial after going through the voir dire process to serve, then they will be seated in a jury box."

Some Republicans are open to the idea.

"On the surface, at first blush, I don't have a negative reaction to it," Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Erie County Republican who's served as chairman of the Senate crime and corrections committee, told The News.

"If the person has successfully completed parole, they essentially served their debt to society," added Gallivan, a former county sheriff who also once on the state Parole Board. "Unless the law precludes it or you can find a public safety reason, it seems to me they should have the same rights as any other citizen."

State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long disagrees.

"It's a bad bill," Long told The News. "It's a bad idea. I don't see why people who have been convicted of crimes should be able to sit in judgment of other people."

He called the Benjamin bill another example of the leftward lurch New York is taking now that the Democrats will control all of state government.

Benjamin's bill comes months after Gov. Cuomo, a Democrat, signed an executive order granting parolees conditional pardons so they can vote.

Gallivan, who vehemently criticized Cuomo's order, said the difference between the governor's action and Benjamin's bill is that the parolees "debt to society was not yet paid and (Cuomo) circumvented the legislative process."