“Wealth-based penal disenfranchisement”
This is the title of a study by UCLA law professor Beth Colgan, published in the Vanderbilt Law Review, in which she documents how every state that disenfranchises people based upon criminal conviction also conditions restoration of the vote for at least some people upon their ability to pay. In some states this is because the law requires people to pay fines, fees, restitution and other court costs before they can vote. Even in the states that restore the vote immediately upon release from prison, “wealth-based penal disenfranchisement” may occur through policies applied by parole and probation authorities. Colgan proposes that such laws and policies can be challenged on Equal Protection grounds, arguing that felony disenfranchisement should be considered not as a civil rights deprivation but as punishment. She argues that the test developed by the Supreme Court in cases involving disparate treatment between rich and poor in criminal justice practices, should operate as a flat prohibition against “the use of the government’s prosecutorial power in ways that effectively punish one’s financial circumstances unless no other alternative response could satisfy the government’s interest in punishing the disenfranchising offense.”
Colgan’s article is particularly relevant in light of Florida’s recent enactment of a law that seems to frustrate the will of the 64% of Florida voters who acted last fall by ballot initiative to provide relief from one of the country’s strictest disenfranchisement provisions. On Friday, shortly after the Governor signed into law a bill conditioning restoration of the vote on payment of all court-imposed debt, a group of civil rights organizations filed suit in federal court, claiming that the new law violates the Constitution in several ways, most premised on the notion that disenfranchisement constitutes punishment. Among other things, the suit argues that “the Fourteenth Amendment’s doctrine of fundamental fairness prevents states from punishing individuals if they fail to do the impossible—satisfy legal financial obligations when they do not have the means to do so,” and that the new law violates Equal Protection in discriminating between those who are able to pay and those who are not. We intend to follow this litigation all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
Here is the Colgan article’s abstract:
This Article offers the first comprehensive examination of the way in which the inability to pay economic sanctions—fines, fees, surcharges, and restitution—may prevent people of limited means from voting. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of penal disenfranchisement upon conviction, and all but two states revoke the right to vote for at least some offenses. The remaining jurisdictions allow for re-enfranchisement for most or all offenses under certain conditions. One often overlooked condition is payment of economic sanctions regardless of whether the would-be voter has the ability to pay before an election registration deadline. The scope of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement is grossly underestimated, with commentators typically stating that nine states sanction such practices. Through an in-depth examination of a tangle of statutes, administrative rules, and policies related to elections, clemency, parole, and probation, as well as responses from public disclosure requests and discussions with elections and corrections officials and other relevant actors, this Article reveals that wealth-based penal disenfranchisement is authorized in forty-eight states and the District of Columbia.
After describing the mechanisms for wealth-based penal disenfranchisement, this Article offers a doctrinal intervention for dismantling them. There has been limited, and to date unsuccessful, litigation challenging these practices as violative of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses. Because voting eligibility is stripped of its fundamental nature for those convicted of a crime, wealth-based penal disenfranchisement has been subject to the lowest level of scrutiny, rational basis review, leading lower courts to uphold the practice. This Article posits that these courts have approached the validity of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement through the wrong frame—the right to vote—when the proper frame is through the lens of punishment. This Article examines a line of cases in which the Court restricted governmental action that would result in disparate treatment between rich and poor in criminal justice practices, juxtaposing the cases against the Court’s treatment of wealth-based discrimination in the Fourteenth Amendment doctrine and the constitutional relevance of indigency in the criminal justice system broadly. Doing so supports the conclusion that the Court has departed from the traditional tiers of scrutiny. The resulting test operates as a flat prohibition against the use of the government’s prosecutorial power in ways that effectively punish one’s financial circumstances unless no other alternative response could satisfy the government’s interest in punishing the disenfranchising offense. Because such alternatives are available, wealth-based penal disenfranchisement would violate the Fourteenth Amendment under this approach.
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