Civil Death: Definition & Law

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we'll discuss the meaning of civil death in the criminal justice system and how it occurs. We'll also discuss recent policy changes and explain the process of regaining rights lost due to a criminal conviction.

What Is Civil Death?

If you've ever watched a television show on prisons, you know the sound of the steel cell door clanking shut, the echo booming down a galley of concrete - it's intimidating. There's a certain finality to that sound, which is why it's used in shows to depict prison. It could also be argued to symbolize the loss of certain rights and liberties that are permanently lost as a result of being convicted of a felony.

Civil death refers to when an individual is convicted of a felony (a serious crime punishable by a year or more in prison) and not only is he punished by the prison sentence but he also loses the rights and privileges normally granted to citizens in our society. These losses are considered to be collateral consequences of being convicted of a crime. A few of these losses are:

  • He no longer can vote
  • He is no longer eligible for food stamps, welfare or section VIII federally subsidized housing
  • He can no longer receive many types of financial aid to attend college or purchase a home
  • He can no longer adopt a child
  • He can no longer hold (most) public office(s)
  • He can no longer obtain or renew certain types of occupational licenses
  • He is no longer eligible to practice law or medicine
  • He can no longer be in possession of or own a firearm

Many of these are actually as a result of guidelines regarding federal assistance programs. Furthermore, while in prison or under supervision in the community he has even fewer privileges in civil society, the most commonly noted is the inability to sign any contract (e.g. marriage, divorce, sale of property, etc.) without prior approval of the governing body that imprisons or supervises the individual (e.g. a state/federal department of corrections, or state/federal department of probation and/or parole). The loss of voting rights is often called felon disenfranchisement. It is determined by a state's guidelines that determine who is eligible to vote.

A few key points to remember:

  • Not all crimes are considered felonies and accordingly aren't punished as harshly.
  • Not all states treat felons the same way, so the loss of rights is not always the same
  • Felon disenfranchisement does not occur as a result of a single law and varies by both the specific law and by the state

Recent Shifts in Laws and Policy

Several states in recent decades have begun restoring certain rights to persons convicted of a felony, the most notable being the right to vote. Advocates for this movement argue that prohibiting felons from voting serves no purpose -- it does not deter offenders from committing a crime, nor does it serve any purpose in broader society.

These changes are dispersed among predominantly liberal and predominantly conservative states alike. Maine and Vermont allow all persons to vote, regardless of their criminal history. Numerous states, including Texas, Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana have restored the right to vote to persons who have completed their prison and/or probation sentence.

However, most of these shifts have focused solely on the restoration of voting rights. Thus, convicted felons still are ineligible for most elements of social support or other rights typically associated with civil death.

Another recent shift is the Ban the Box movement that gained momentum after Target corporation announced it was removing the felony conviction question from its standard job application form. The state of Illinois followed suit, eliminating this question from most state job applications and forcing private employers to do the same. Illinois' legislation also prohibited employers from using an applicant's criminal history in making employment decisions. Several other states including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Hawaii and a few large cities already had similar policies in their laws as well.

Restoration of Rights

Even though there has been a move to allow persons convicted of a crime the ability to regain their voting rights, this is by no means a clear or simple process. The steps to regain voting rights vary by state, by the statute that the offender was convicted under, when the crime occurred, and several other factors.

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