The New Civil Death: Rethinking Punishment in the Era of Mass Conviction
46 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2012 Last revised: 25 Aug 2012
Date Written: April 1, 2012
Most people convicted of felonies are not sentenced to prison; a majority receive straight probation, or probation with a jail term. However, this hardly means that the conviction is inconsequential. Tens of thousands of federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and ordinances restrict the civil rights, employment, eligibility for public benefits, residence and other aspects of the status of convicted persons.
Accordingly, for many, the most serious and long-lasting effects of conviction flow from the status of being convicted and the concomitant lifetime subjection to collateral consequences. However, courts generally treat collateral consequences as non-punitive civil regulations, and therefore not subject to constitutional limitations on criminal punishment.
This treatment of collateral consequences is surprising. In cases like Weems v. United States and Trop v. Dulles, the Supreme Court understood systematic loss of status not only to be punishment, but to be cruel and unusual punishment.
Further, collateral consequences have practically revived the traditional punishment of civil death. Civil death deprived offenders of civil rights, such as the right to sue, and other aspects of legal status. Most civil death statutes were repealed in the Twentieth Century, but its equivalent has been reproduced through systematic collateral consequences. Instead of losing rights immediately, convicted people now hold their rights at sufferance, subject to limitation and restriction at the discretion of the government.
The new civil death, loss of equal legal status and susceptibility to a network of collateral consequences, should be understood as constitutional punishment. In the era of the regulatory state, collateral consequences may now be more significant than was civil death in past decades. The actions of judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors should attend to what is really at stake in criminal prosecutions.
Keywords: punishment, civil death, sentencing, corrections, Padilla v. Kentucky
JEL Classification: K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation