“Wealth-Based Penal Disenfranchisement”
This is the title of an important new article by Professor Beth Colgan, forthcoming in the Vanderbilt Law Review, in which she documents how inability to pay economic sanctions associated with a criminal conviction (such as fines, fees and restitution) results in continuing disenfranchisement nationwide. While the law in almost every state now restores the vote to those convicted of felonies no later than completion of sentence, and while fewer than a dozen states explicitly condition re-enfranchisement upon payment of court-imposed debt, Colgan shows how the link between re-infranchisement and conditions of supervision “significantly expands the authorization of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement across the country.” Through a detailed analysis of interrelated laws, rules, policies and practices, including those related to conditions of probation and parole, she establishes that “wealth-based penal disenfranchisement is authorized in forty-eight states and the District of Columbia.”
After describing the mechanisms of wealth-based penal disenfranchisement, Colgan offers a legal theory for “dismantling” them. She argues that courts have looked at these mechanisms “through the wrong frame—the right to vote—when the proper frame is through the lens of punishment.” Applying the doctrine developed in cases restricting governmental action that would result in disparate treatment between rich and poor in criminal justice practices, she concludes that wealth-based penal disenfranchisement violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
The article’s abstract follows:
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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