Unintended Collateral Consequences: Defining Felony in the Early American Republic
32 Pages Posted: 4 Dec 2009 Last revised: 2 Mar 2010
Date Written: 2009
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.
Keywords: felony, common law, crime, New York, legal history, reform movements, penitentiaries, state statutes, collateral consequences
JEL Classification: K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation