Don't Expect Court Ruling on Felon Voting--and Discrimination--to Shake Up the Justice System

Image by Harley Soltes
Daugaard: the celebration's on hold.
King County public defender Lisa Daugaard has been fighting racial discrimination in the justice system for years. She has railed against drug policies that put large numbers of minorities in prison and fought for more racially-balanced juries.

So you might think she would be uncorking the champagne after yesterday's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals finding that discrimination, in fact, exists in the police, prosecutorial and judicial practices of this state--and therefore that felons should have the right to vote.

Not exactly. Daugaard, deputy director of The Defender Association, says she is pleased by the outcome for felons. But, she says, "I would not predict that this leads in a straight line to criminal justice reform."

The ruling might have led to significant change had it determined that justice system officials were intentionally locking up black and brown people because of their race. The 9th Circuit's finding of "discrimination" seems to suggest that's what going on, but the term doesn't actually carry that legal meaning, according to Daugaard.

The judges said criminal activity alone can't account for the greater proportion of minorities in prison. But intentional discrimination is not the only explanation. Another possible reason Daugaard cites: minorities tend to be of lesser means and thus less likely to afford bail and get out of jail.

Daugaard says she hopes the decision will "spark a renewed interest in the topic of disparity" by policy leaders and the public. But she's not expecting it to immediately help her in the courtroom.

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Felons may get the vote, but they can't serve on juries
She cites her experience pressing a case that challenges the jury pool selection in King County because it excludes felons. She argued that the disproportionate numbers of minorities thus excluded meant that many defendants don't get a fair jury reflective of their community.

In her arguments, she cited exactly the U.S. District Court finding on discrimination that the 9th Circuit just affirmed. Even so, a King County Superior Court judge ruled against her in 2007, the state Court of Appeals concurred, and last month the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

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