Unintended Collateral Consequences: Defining Felony in the Early American Republic
University of Baltimore - School of Law
Cleveland State Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 3, pp. 461-491, Fall 2009
University of Baltimore School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2010-06
At common law a felony was a crime that led to forfeiture of the convict’s property. In contemporary American law, a felony is usually defined as a crime that is punished by death, or imprisonment in a specially designated place (prison or penitentiary) or for a designated period of time (more than one year). The attached article examines how that change came about, and fixes the time and place of the re-definition: New York in 1828, during a revision of that state’s statutes. The choice made by the revisors, a compromise between radical reform and adherence to the common law tradition, is placed in the context of two early 19th century reform movements: Codification of the common law, and the founding of the penitentiaries.
How felony is defined - creating more or fewer felonies - gains greater importance in light of the current concern over the collateral consequences of a felony conviction. Looking at how the line between felonies and lesser crimes was originally drawn can offer insight as to where it should be drawn today.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 32
Keywords: felony, common law, crime, New York, legal history, reform movements, penitentiaries, state statutes, collateral consequences
JEL Classification: K14, K42
Date posted: December 4, 2009 ; Last revised: March 2, 2010
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