“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:

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