New book argues collateral consequences can’t be justified

University of Nottingham philosophy professor Zachary Hoskins has written an important new book about “collateral legal consequences” (CLCs), just published by Oxford University Press.  Beyond Punishment? A Normative Account of the Collateral Legal Consequences of Conviction engages cases and statutes from the United States and other countries, but it is primarily a philosophical interrogation of the legitimacy of CLCs, not an analysis of legal doctrine or constitutional limitations.

A core principle is the powerful one that harsh treatment and disadvantage requires justification, particularly when hardships are imposed on specific groups.  Beyond Punishment argues that CLCs could be justified as criminal punishment to some degree, but that legitimate punishment is that which is necessary and sufficient to pay one’s debt to society. The way CLCs actually operate in the United States often does not fit into this category.  First, CLCs are not characterized as punishment (and therefore are exempt from the constitutional limitations on criminal punishment) but as civil, regulatory measures.  Second, they are often imposed years after completion of the criminal sentence.

A non-punitive rationale might be that by breaching the social contract, people with convictions are not entitled to the benefits of that contract.  But this proves too much–because someone jaywalked in 1989 does not mean they can legitimately be robbed or defrauded today.  If breaching the social contract justifies only a proportional as opposed to an unlimited response, most CLCs go too far. Beyond Punishment also criticizes public safety as a justification for CLCs, for essentially the same reason: The more or less random and arbitrary imposition of collateral consequences is unduly harsh on some, while others who should be restrained for the same reason but have no criminal conviction are not subject to CLCs.

Beyond Punishment’s careful analysis and precise definitions make a strong case that CLCs are, as Justice Kennedy said about imprisonment itself, disabling “too many persons for too long.”  But the tradition of American constitutional jurisprudence, anyway, has not been to require rigorous fairness or precise justification for hard treatment.  Even with regard to incarceration, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment has not been much of a limitation on brutal sentences for minor crimes.  This is, to some extent, good news as well as bad.  While courts have proved, thus far, of only limited help in reining in collateral consequences and other criminal sanctions, legislatures are as unconstrained in repealing or mitigating them as they were in imposing them in the first place.  Legislators and voters, as well as students and lawyers, will be hard-pressed to justify our current system of CLCs after reading this book.