Will Snowden received his law degree from Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey and worked as a public defender in New Orleans. Through his work in the justice system, he became concerned with weaknesses in our jury system that led to a lack of diversity in jury members and ultimately, unjust outcomes.
In response, Will established The Juror Project, whose mission is “to change the makeup of juries to better represent the American population and the communities most commonly accused. We pursue this through community and public education about jury eligibility and the jury selection process and the power jurors hold in America’s high stakes criminal justice system.”
“Louisiana has been the prisoner capital of the world for decades. If incarceration worked, we’d be the safest place in the country.”
I am from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I grew up there, from what I describe as a blended background. My dad is Black. My mom is white. And it has really been my experiences in Arkansas growing up as a kid and my experiences in Iowa growing up as a kid that have influenced my perspective of the world in terms of matters of race, matters of justice, matters of fairness. And I do consider myself to be privileged to have great parents, privileged to be able to go to law school, and it’s a privilege to be able to do work, trying to reform the criminal legal system.
There have been a couple of incidents when I was a kid that taught me about fairness and justice. And one that I share quite frequently is when I was in the ninth grade, I was running cross country practice. I went to high school in a suburb of Milwaukee called Wauwatosa. And our cross-country practice would take us into another suburb called Brookfield, and Brookfield—at least in the area that we were running practice—was a more white, more affluent neighborhood.
If you were to ask anybody, I was the slowest person on the team. When I was running practice this particular day, the team was probably about a half mile to a mile in front of me. And as I’m doing my best to run that day, a police officer drives by me. He stops, he rings his siren one time and he asks me, “Why are you running so fast?” And I kind of chuckled because I knew I wasn’t running that fast, because the rest of the team was ahead of me. I looked at my outfit, which no self-respecting person would wear unless you’re running cross country practice because it was kind of a green tank top with two letter Cs with an arrow through it, which is like the universal cross-country symbol and some very short shorts that were showing way too much thigh. And I looked at my outfit as my answer. And then I told him I’m running cross country practice. And he said, “Likely story.” He asked me for my name and I gave it to him. He ran my information.
Of course, nothing came up and he pulled off. So I was upset. You know, I clearly had just been profiled in this neighborhood, stopped for no reason but for running behind the rest of the team. And I told my coach about it. My coach was upset. I told my parents and my parents were upset. So we hop in the minivan. We walk into the police station in Brookfield and there’s a desk Sergeant. He sees my parents come in with a little bit of intention in their step and they start expressing their concerns. And the desktop Sergeant says ,“Sir, we’ll be with you in a second. Ma’am how can we help you?”
[He didn’t realize} that we were a family unit, even though we walked in together. And I believe that my parents have experience navigating instances where race is a factor and knowing that as an interracial couple—and this was in the nineties—people don’t always assume that they are together. I think they’re used to navigating that.
In that moment, the Lieutenant came out and says, “Well, we want to ask your son some questions.” And my parents had decided it’d be best for my mom to go with me to be questioned by the Lieutenant. My mom is a white woman from Iowa. She knows how to use her white privilege. And she knows how to be a strong and protective mother. So going back to the lieutenant’s office, he’s asking me questions and he’s interrogating me.
He’s asking me what direction I was running. And I told him I was running towards West. And everybody in that area knows that there’s two high schools in Wauwatosa. One is called Wauwatosa West. The other one is called Wauwatosa East. No one says Wauwatosa, because it’s a mouthful. So I just said I was running towards West. And he said, “Well, are you sure? Because you were on North Avenue and North Avenue runs North and South.” He was referring to nautical direction. So he’s trying to trip me up in a lie. And my mom says, “You know what he’s talking about. He’s talking about Wauwatosa West high school.” And then he said, “Well, we have a witness that saw the cop not stop and talk to you.”
And so that’s when I got mad because he was trying to say that I was lying about everything. My mom didn’t skip a beat. She says, “Well, how did you canvas for that? Did you go around knocking on doors saying, ‘Hey, did you see this cop not stop and talk to this young black kid?’ And then when did you canvas that? Because we just got here 10 minutes ago.” So she was able to call out his BS immediately.
And then she took out her checkbook, which was really confusing to me because we don’t necessarily come from money. Both my parents were public school teachers, but as you know, the top of the checkbook has a calendar. My mom says to the Lieutenant, if you don’t give my son an apology, you can see this story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
And she starts counting the days. She actually had calculated how long it would take to call her friend who works at the paper and to get it published. And one thing about my mom, she used to be a nun. She is a teacher and she’s a mom. And so, when a mom uses that tone in their voice that can make the largest person feel small, I heard that. I got small in the room. And I can see the Lieutenant kind of gets low.
And I say all this very long winded story to say that at a young age, having been profiled by police, having been doubted in terms of expressing what actually happened to me, having my parents challenge authority and stick up for me was a meaningful and powerful experience.
I finished high school. I went to college in Minnesota. I knew I wanted to go to law school. I worked one year as a paralegal, then two years as an investigator at a public defender’s office. And after the experience at the public defender’s office, I knew I wanted to be a public defender. So I went to law school at Seton Hall, and then I came to New Orleans to start as a staff attorney. And the reason why I moved to New Orleans is because Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. Simply put we’re locking up too many Black people. And I wanted to be part of an effort that was going to change that reality.
I was a public defender for five years and while I was a public defender, I started something called The Juror Project, which is a passion project of mine. And now I work at the Vera Institute of Justice, still trying to reform their criminal legal system. I think having the experience at a young age and additional experiences with police over the years, having seen and witnessed how my parents have tried to put good into the world has influenced and brought me to this moment today, where I find myself in New Orleans, working to reform the criminal legal system.
When I was a public defender, I would watch trials, even if they weren’t my own. I’d go and I’d sit in court, I’d watch trials, I’d have my own trials. Something that became very evident to me was that our juries lack diversity. Not just diversity of race, but diversity of experience, diversity of perspective, diversity in every sense of the word.
And I realized that as a public defender, not only is it my responsibility to fight for and represent my clients and try to bring fairness to their representation, but [I realized] how unfair our criminal legal system is particularly in the realm of jury selection. And so I realized I had to take my advocacy from the courtroom to the community.
I started The Juror Project with two things in mind. First to increase diversity of our jury panels, and second, to improve people’s perspective of jury duty because there are folks who get a summons in the mail and their natural response is, “How do I get out of jury duty?” And so what we try to do is have conversations in the community. We identify the four main contributing factors to lack of diversity in our juries. And then we try to have conversations and advocate for policies to help change our jury systems to advance fairness and equity in our criminal legal system.
We think about the purpose of our criminal legal system. And I think it was originally designed—at least in theory—to rehabilitate. To return people back into our communities to be productive citizens and, and not fall back into the behaviors that led them to have contact with the criminal legal system in the first place. I think that has been a huge farce, right? I think our prison system has not been to rehabilitate. I think it’s been purely punitive. And when we think about how we want to set people up for success, when they are transitioning from being incarcerated to back into our communities, employment is a huge thing in Louisiana.
And this was on the books when I was a public defender. If you had a felony conviction, you could not work in an establishment that serves alcohol in New Orleans. Our industry is tourism. You can’t go to a restaurant. You can’t go to a concert hall. You can’t go to the basketball game. You can’t go to the Saints game. Alcohol is part of this culture. And the fact that we would deny people employment simply because the person with a felony conviction can’t work at a facility that serves alcohol…what is the logic behind that? If somebody had a problem handling alcohol, then sure, it would make sense. We wouldn’t want that person to be in an environment where they could be tempted back into using alcohol.
But the logic is just absent from the myriad of collateral consequences that exist from being able to kind of seamlessly reintegrate back into our communities. Ultimately when you deny people those opportunities, you’re narrowing the lane of their on-ramp to success, and you’re making it more enticing, if somebody has to provide for their family and they can’t get jobs, it makes sense when they resort to other unfavorable means to provide for their family. And so the idea of restoring jury rights to people with felony convictions is in the larger conversation of after the person has served time for the crime that they have committed, they should be able to come back into our community and be part of our community.
I’ve been part of conversations of promoting restoring jury rights to people after convictions. And the pushback that we frequently get is, well, these people are cons. These are felons. These are dangerous, violent people. Well, first, we have to be first be mindful of how dehumanizing that language is. But second, we also have to understand that somebody’s returning home from prison. They want to live in a safe community, just like everybody else.
There was a study out of Georgia, on people with felony convictions on juries to see like how they would vote and how they will contribute to deliberation process. And it showed that they were actually the more conservative jurors, that they had tremendous value of sharing their experience of their criminal legal system and understanding that added to the overall quality of the deliberation process.
So this study shows that having people with this type of experience contributes to the overall fairness of our jury system, but there’s this natural schema that gets activated that you’re not going to put a criminal on the jury because they’re going to let this other criminal go. And although that can be a natural response that I’ve heard from legislators, there’s no research or science or data to suggest that that is actually true. And so when we think about why it is important to restore jury rights to people who have felony convictions, it is so that that person can more appropriately turn a new page, start a new trajectory in the life that they want to pursue, feeling that their rights have actually been restored.
We have to pause and ask ourselves, are prisons the right intervention to change the behavior that we’re concerned about. I would argue to folks that incarceration as an intervention to address trauma, to address poverty, to address disinvestment of communities is never going to work. However, there’s a gut response. When somebody commits an incident of violence, we have been conditioned to think that person needs to be punished. Some of us think that person needs to be punished with their life being taken away. And I think it’s a human response when a family member or a loved one, or even ourselves have been harmed by another individual, there should be accountability, but the community has not been part of the conversation of what accountability looks like in this country.
When we think about accountability, there are two assumptions that exist. One is that there’s an assumption or condition that there’s a community that exists. And two, that there’s trust within that community.
So accountability then looks like if that trust has been violated or broken within that community, then there have to be consequences as designed by that community. That kind of leans into the conversations of restorative justice circles, and alternative ways to address harm that has been perpetuated against other individuals in a way where the person feels ownership, where the survivor of the crime can be part of the conversation to design what that person needs to do to essentially repent for the harms that they’ve committed against that community.
And studies show how much more impactful these restorative justice circles are than somebody doing a 10 year bid at Angola. We have to wean ourselves off this addiction of incarceration.
People believe, well this person committed a crime so they deserve to do time. We’ve heard that phrase so often, but it doesn’t work. Louisiana has been the prisoner capital of the world for decades. If incarceration worked, we’d be the safest place in the country. But it doesn’t work.
So I’m tired of the design of our criminal legal system that has not worked, that has not been promoting community safety. And I think that we are in a moment where we can use research, we can use data, we can use the experts that exist within our community to have a different design of what accountability looks like, to have different investment in communities that will actually promote community safety.
-Have you ever been profiled?
-Have you ever been misunderstood? What did that feel like?
-What are the experiences that have shaped who you are? Pick one negative and one positive experience.
-Who has advocated for you in a difficult moment? What did that mean to you?
-Where do you see forms of injustice in our justice system?
-Have you served on jury duty? Did it feel like a burden or an act of community service?
-What other experiences have you had with our criminal justice system?
-Do you view drug activity as a criminal or a behavioral / healthcare issue?
-What is the goal of incarceration and how effective are we at achieving that goal?
-Once someone has been through the prison system, what further debt do they owe to society?
-What are the ways we can invite people back into full participation in society?
-Using the model of restorative justice circles, how can the community become more involved in holding people accountable for crimes they commit?