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: Read more