Will Snowden is the founder of the Juror Project and director of the New Orleans office of Vera Institute of Justice. Will spoke to Collab in Action about the Juror Project, a nonprofit that aims to increase the diversity of jury panels and change perspectives on jury duty through community education. Will also spoke about the focus of his current and upcoming work at Vera.
Camila: What was your greatest challenge getting the Juror Project started?
Will: My greatest challenge was really having confidence that I was going to be able to create something that would have an impact. We often expose ourselves to problems, but the difficult task is to figure out what our response is going to be. For me, it was difficult to believe in myself, and that this was something that I could start and could contribute to.
Did you have help getting the project started?
Not in an official capacity. But in the beginning, I shopped around the idea in my legal network — different lawyers, judges and people who had done jury duty — just to get feedback and validate some assumptions that I was making. I wanted make sure that I was really shining light on blind spots when launching the Juror Project.
And what do you believe has been your greatest success so far?
When I was a practicing public defender, prosecutors were incorporating questions about the Juror Project into their voir dire. They would ask “Mr. Snowden runs something called the Juror Project - do any of you know it or have participated in it?”. And that’s because the Juror Project had become so well known in the community and different universities in New Orleans, that it was seen as a threat to the district attorney. I knew I was doing something right when the district attorney’s office seemed intimidated by it.
What can members of the public who are being educated through the Juror Project actually do to change jury selection bias and discriminatory practices?
There’s not much that an individual can do stop discriminatory practices. The key is knowing how jury selection works and how certain tactics are used to remove certain people and their perspectives from the process. When we become aware of how the game is being played, we can properly ensure that someone gets a representative jury. It’s about being mindful of how certain answers can be misinterpreted to lead to a strike for legal cause. If a person is truly committed and honest about being fair and impartial, that should be an underlying foundation for what they represent during jury selection.
Does the Juror Project also work with prosecutors, alerting them to implicit biases?
I have not designed what a presentation to prosecutors should look like. I think there are ways to train prosecutors on how to do voir dire more ethically, but the Juror Project is really focused on the community and not so much government actors. We identify to the community how the work of defenders and prosecutors can contribute to the lack of diversity in our juries. We have, however, presented at criminal justice conferences and continuing legal education seminars to both prosecutors and defenders, triggering conversations about how their conduct may reduce diversity in juries.
Could an impact of the Juror Project be that by having more faith in juries, defendants would be less inclined to accept plea offers and end up with longer sentences by electing to go to trial more often?
We do know that there’s something called a “trial tax.” I’ve heard judges say “the DA is offering you five years now, and the minimum is seven. If you go to trial, I’m not giving you anything less than ten.” We should really highlight how ridiculous that type of logic is — it penalizes someone for exercising a constitutional right to go to trial and to hold prosecutors responsible for proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Exercising this right can potentially cost someone years of their life.
It is possible that people go to trial and get increased sentences as opposed to what they’re being offered as a plea deal, however, if a prosecutor is offering someone five years for committing a crime, why wouldn’t a judge be comfortable with whatever the mandatory minimum is? We need to pay attention to this reality and criticize it. Why do judges think it is appropriate to apply a so-called “trial tax” just because someone elected to go to trial when it is their right to do so? Right now, there are many things that go into consideration when defendants decide to go to trial or not - and so much of it has nothing to do with the merits of the case, but more so with the calculus of what they’ll be exposed to.
Changing gears, could you tell us more about the focus of your current work leading the Vera Institute of Justice office in New Orleans?
Our office has three main focuses. One focus is reducing the jail population and the jail footprint. Vera came to New Orleans in 2006, invited by a council member, to help the city redefine and reform its criminal legal system after hurricane Katrina. Before Katrina, the average jail population was about 6,500 people, and now we’re averaging about 1,100 people. This is evidence that the size of a city does not need the size of jail we had before the storm. A lot of this reduction was due to Vera’s technical assistance, partnerships with community leaders, organizations and interested government groups. However, despite our great success, we’re still above the national average and have more work to do particularly as it relates to reducing racial and ethnic disparities of the people in jail.
A second focus of our work is called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which is a program that gives police officers proper training and resources to engage differently with New Orleanians who might be dealing with substance use issues, trauma, home instability, or mental illness. We help officers understand that in many cases, taking the person to jail is not going to help them get on a different track. The LEAD program allows officers to call out a case manager who will help get the person connected to the services they might need to address the underlying issue fueling contact with the system in the first place.
Our third area of work is what we call Ending Money Injustice. We describe money injustice as being bail on the front end of a case and fines and fees on the tail end of the case. They are both forms of extracting wealth from poor black and brown folks. We’re trying to end money bail and come up with a better system that anchors public safety, not money, and the guiding factor for detention or release. We published a report called, “Paid in Full” in June of 2019 putting forth a plan that eliminates money bail, fines and fees, and we’re working on getting that adopted.
And what do you have on the horizon for future projects?
On the horizon we have a project on reshaping prosecution. Our District Attorney election is coming up in November of 2020, and we’re trying to position ourselves to educate New Orleanians on what the DA does and what we should expect from a 21st century prosecutor. We’ll not get behind a particular candidate, but we’ll support policies that are necessary to push reforms forward. DAs wield tremendous power, and we want to make sure this power is wielded for good. After we engage in community education, we also want to work on accountability and oversight. Being the data and policy shop that Vera is we can track the DA’s office data to identify areas for improvement and provide recommendations on how to change behavior. On a different front, we’ll also be doing a study on what impact a potential bill restoring jury rights to people with felony convictions would have on the criminal legal system.
Talking about 21st century prosecution, in the last few years, DAs have been elected across the country under the banner of progressive reform. As a former public defender, what’s your opinion on this movement, and how can public defenders also be made part of proposed reforms?
If we want to reform the criminal legal system, we certainly need to focus on the people who hold the most power, and that’s the district attorney. But we also need to look at who checks that power, and that’s the public defender. And if we want to see real reform, investment and attention cannot be one-sided. If we had budget parity between these two offices, this injection of resources alone would allow for more hiring of attorneys, investigators and social workers on the public defenders’ side. This would be a huge change in terms of quality of representation, how quickly cases can be resolved and overall fairness. We cannot focus all energies in one actor when the overall system needs improvement.
A lot of people are caught up in this mindset of not caring about folks who have been charged of committing what may be considered heinous crimes. But we should know that if the system doesn’t properly work for people who might be factually guilty, it’s not going to work for those who are factually innocent. Understanding the presumption of innocence as being the guide by which we established pillars and safety nets in the criminal legal system is very important. We have due process for a reason and investing in public defense offices allows us to ensure it.
What are you most looking forward to see happening in the criminal justice reform world in 2020?
I’m really excited about three things. First, our local DA election. I see this as a moment for New Orleans to continue its reform and build on the success we’ve had over the past few years. Second, the judicial election. We’ll have at least two and possibly three new judges in criminal district court, which is 25% of the bench. I’m excited because there has been some hesitancy from judges regarding bail reform. They are interested in advancing reform but fear how other actors or the media would drag them through the mud for letting somebody go, giving them an opportunity to commit another crime. It’s an understandable fear, but this potential threat exists with or without money bail. I’m excited to see if we’ll get potentially three judges on the bench that are more willing to take a risk and lead beyond the status quo. Third, I’m excited to see progress regarding the use of fines and fees. There have been two federal court decisions in 2018 on how these practices were unconstitutional and represented conflicts of interest, since the fees finance operations of the courts. So, I’m optimistic about the ways in which we could be supportive of a legislative change.
We also need to bring more attention to immigrant detention, a problem that often goes under the radar. Jails and prisons in Louisiana are now being filled with asylum seekers, who are filling the beds of individuals whom we have successfully brought home through criminal justice reform. We cannot forget about immigrant detainees as if it was not our problem. Vera has been involved in providing legal representation to these immigrants and I’m excited to be part of this conversation.
Lastly, we need to continue supporting formerly incarcerated people who have been leading conversations around reform. This energy needs to continue to build and transform how we define expertise — it doesn’t have to be based on degrees, we must value lived experiences.
Will Snowden is the New Orleans Director of the Vera Institute of Justice. In this role, he continues and strengthens Vera’s existing partnerships with criminal justice actors and community leaders while identifying new collaborative relationships with government entities and community organizations. The collaborations focus on improving criminal justice systems in the South. Prior to joining Vera, Will was a public defender for five years representing New Orleanians in all stages of a case from arraignment to trial. Will also developed a focus and specialization in advocacy around reforming the procedures, systems, and policies around jury duty in an effort to promote diversity and representativeness in the jury box. Will also launched The Juror Project—an initiative aiming to increase the diversity of jury panels while changing and challenging people’s perspective of jury duty. Will leads workshops around the country as it relates to how implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype threat influence actors and outcomes in the criminal justice system. He received his J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law and a B.S. from the University of Minnesota.