The Modern Day Scarlet Letter

29 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2014 Last revised: 22 Apr 2015

See all articles by Ifeoma Ajunwa

Ifeoma Ajunwa

Cornell University ILR School/Law School; Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Date Written: June 30, 2014


American society has come to presuppose the efficacy of the collateral legal consequences of criminal conviction. But little attention has been paid to their effects on the reintegration efforts of the formerly incarcerated and, in particular, formerly incarcerated women. An 1848 case, Sutton v. McIlhany, affirmed collateral legal consequences as constituting an important part of criminal punishment. More recent cases, such as Turner v. Glickman, in which a class of people convicted of drug crimes were subsequently denied food stamps and other government benefits, have upheld the constitutionality of imposing these legal penalties on an individual even after she has served her prison sentence.

This Article argues that the collateral legal consequences of criminal conviction represent a “modern day scarlet letter” that lingers with the formerly incarcerated woman for life and that serves to circumscribe those individuals' economic and social opportunities. Calling upon critical legal theory and empirical social science research, this Article argues that the collateral legal consequences of conviction exact a disproportionate cost on formerly incarcerated women. Expanding upon the understanding of Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw's critical legal theory of “intersectionality,” this Article discusses the predominant intersectional identities that formerly incarcerated women embody and examines how these identities compound the impact of collateral legal consequences. This Article finds that Black women are most negatively impacted by the collateral legal consequences of incarceration. This Article proposes a model of reentry that is cognizant of the increased vulnerability of formerly incarcerated women and that is better designed to accommodate the exigencies that are intrinsic to their intersectional identities.

Keywords: Intersectionality, Reentry, Critical Race Theory, Critical Feminist Legal Theory, Mass Incarceration, Gender

JEL Classification: A13, D78

Suggested Citation

Ajunwa, Ifeoma, The Modern Day Scarlet Letter (June 30, 2014). Fordham Law Review, Vol. 83, No. 101, 2015; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-455. Available at SSRN:

Ifeoma Ajunwa (Contact Author)

Cornell University ILR School/Law School ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853-3901
United States

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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