Time Outlasting Crimes? Is Felony Disenfranchisement Fair?

We all know the classic saying “you do the crime, you do the time”, but what happens when you do your time and continue paying for the crime the rest of your life? Many states throughout the US have rules and regulations pertaining to many different aspects of “normal” life that impact convicted felons’ abilities to succeed in the real world. Convicted felons losing the right to vote has been getting a substantial amount of press due to the upcoming election, however there are many other rights denied to convicted felons too.

What constitutes as a felony?

A felony is a crime, typically one involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor, and usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or even by death. An article from L. Gordon Crovitz details his views on how an average American commits three felonies a day because laws have become too vague and the concept of intent is disappearing (see GovTrack for a great discussion of the complications of Mens Rea and criminal intent). Here is a list of the most common felonies in the United States, including drug abuse violations, driving while intoxicated, assault and burglary. Some more outlandish felonies in the United States include: Alabama residents who commit unlawful bear exploitation if they purchase, possess, or train a bear for the purpose of bear wrestling receive a Class B felony, Michigan’s statute from 1931 making adultery a felony — punishable by a maximum of four years in prison and a $5,000 fine, and in Wyoming you can’t “cut, sever, detach, or mutilate” more than one-half of a sheep’s ear – violations are felony offenses, punishable by up to five years in prison. Although some of these felonies are a look into nonsensical aspects of our political system, what are the real issues post-conviction for felons?

What rights are taken?

First, felony disenfranchisement has received the most coverage in the news recently because of the upcoming election. Felony disenfranchisement is no longer allowing convicted felons to vote. Although most states prohibit prisoners from voting while incarcerated, many convicted felons find it difficult to vote post release. Some states in the US ban felons from voting for a certain period of time after their release, while others ban for life. Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe, recently gave convicted felons who completed their sentence and any type of supervised release the right to vote, run for office or serve on a jury. Here is a map that details different regulations around the United States:

felon disenfranchisement sentencing-project

Although felons are permitted to hold and use a US passport, other countries have the right to deny entry or visas to the country depending on the type of felony. For example, in Canada if you have a DUI you are not permitted to enter the country.

Many of the states who require immediate background checks prior to selling guns also hold bans on felons purchasing and owning firearms. This is especially relevant if they were accused of a crime that involved a gun or was violent.

When it comes to matters of employment, it is not necessarily regulations that take away the rights of convicted felons but the lack thereof. States have an average of 123 restrictions on employment, here is a table showing states with the least/most regulations.

Job Restrictions

Private employers are permitted to conduct background checks and choose to not hire felons, common within the child care industry. States which allow this do not have regulations to protect convicted felons from this type of discrimination. Other employment limitations include barring felons convicted of a crime involving dishonesty or a breach of trust from working in the insurance industry. In unions, there is a 13-year limit after the date of a conviction or release for felons to hold positions. Specific offenses, pertaining to dishonesty, breach of trust or money laundering, prevent felons from being employed by companies that are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Aside from being excluded from jury service in most states, convicted felons are also denied other public social benefits. These benefits include applying for federal or state grants, living in public housing, receiving federal cash assistance, SII or food stamps, diminishing parental rights and others. Although getting a lease, applying for a loan or filing official paperwork are not officially taken from convicted felons, the stain on their record often makes these processes difficult.

The Bills.

In the face of these increasing restrictions, some states have enacted “Ban the Box” legislation to adopt fair hiring policies, among other things. The following are a range of bills covering the different rights taken away from convicted felons in states across the US.

Alabama introduced HB 245, or Alabama Restoration of Voting Rights Act, for the automatic restoration of voting rights for convicted felons. Louisiana’s HB 598 outlines guidelines for voting stating “felons currently incarcerated, on parole or probation may not vote”. Those that meet voting requirements are only allowed to vote through an absentee ballot. Maryland’s HB 716 would require an individual who is a felon to vote only by absentee ballot aside from specified registered criminal offenders who are not felons can enter onto school property for the purpose of voting only.

In Oklahoma, HB 3097 states “it is unlawful for any person convicted of any felony in any court of this state or of another state in the United States to have in his or her possession or under his or her immediate control, or in any vehicle which the person is operating, or in which the person is riding as a passenger, or at the residence where the convicted person resides, any pistol, imitation or homemade pistol, altered air or toy pistol, machine gun, sawed-off shotgun or rifle, or any other dangerous or deadly firearm”.

Idaho proposed S 1276 which states “upon final discharge, a person convicted of any Idaho felony shall be restored the full rights of citizenship, except that for persons convicted of treason” aside from the rights to ship, transport, possess or receive a firearm following felony convictions for certain crimes.

Illinois has a bill, HB 4039, that would prohibit gun ownership in Illinois by people on the federal terrorism watch list. It would also require that permits be revoked and guns be removed from those who have been declared dangerously mentally ill, a threat to themselves or others, domestic violence offenders or convicted felons.

According to a study by Harvard sociologist Devah Pager, the presence of a criminal record reduces one’s application callback likelihood by 50% for whites and 64% for African Americans. In an attempt to mitigate this discrimination, 23 states have adopted “Ban the Box” policies. Seven states have “Ban the Box” bills this year: KansasLouisianaNorth CarolinaPennsylvaniaSouth CarolinaWashington and West Virginia. Connecticut proposed HB 5237 which would prohibit employers from asking about past criminal convictions until after a conditional offer of employment is made.

Texas introduced SB 200 which states that felons convicted on drug charges are eligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits upon completion of their sentences – where a lifetime ban once stood. Eighteen other states have opted out of the ban, including Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota.

The issue with many of these restrictions for convicted felons is it creates a vicious cycle not allowing them to get their lives back on track. Through being denied the right to work, vote, travel, apply for housing or receive help, convicted felons are put in a position that doesn’t allow them to participate or thrive in our society. These restrictions not only affect people’s lives but the construction of our society. The following infographic details the demographics of our population that cannot vote – mostly African American men.

Felony Disenfranchisement

Not only can people not vote, but it is harder to find jobs to pay the rent and they are denied public benefits like low income housing so it is incredibly difficult for them to afford a reasonable, safe place to live. When faced with this situation, convicted felons may go back into criminal activities in order to make enough money to survive, thus creating this positive feedback loop in our society. We need to support our citizens and help them move forward with their lives in a safe, legal and healthy way. There are many companies that are attempting to help end recidivism (a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime) like Denver based company, Mile High Workshop. Studies have shown that the number one indicator if person will not commit another crime is whether they have a job and proper support in that job. These companies teach hard and soft skills in order to build people’s resumes, confidence and experience. This is an aspect of our society that needs to be addressed in order to move us forward and promote society as a whole.

What do you think? Should current prisoners be allowed to vote? Should people who have served their sentences be allowed to vote? To receive benefits and government support? To own a gun?


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