Discretionary Disenfranchisement: The Case of Legal Financial Obligations
Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 46, pp. 309-338, 2017
46 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2021
Date Written: June 2017
Conditioning voting rights on the payment of legal financial obligations (LFOs) may be unconstitutional if there are no exceptions for indigency. Appellate courts, though, generally have upheld felon disenfranchisement laws that withhold voting rights until all fees, fines, and restitution are paid in full. These decisions, however, have been made with limited evidence available about the type, burden, and disparate impact of criminal debt. We address this by detailing who owes LFOs, how much they owe, and for what purpose using representative, statewide samples in Alabama. The median amount of LFOs assessed to discharged felons across all of their criminal convictions is $3,956, more than half of which stems from court fees. As a result, most ex-felons remain disenfranchised after completing their sentence. People who are disproportionately indigent — those utilizing a public defender and Blacks — are even less likely to be eligible to restore their voting rights.
Keywords: election law, election administration, felon disenfranchisement, fines and fees, legal financial obligations, empirical legal studies
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