Unpaid Debt to Society: Exploring How Ex-Felons View Restrictions on Voting Rights after the Completion of Their Sentence

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Contemporary Justice Review: Issues in Criminal, Social, and Restorative Justice






The Supreme Court has asserted that ex-felon disenfranchisement is not a punishment. Regardless of the Court’s interpretation, however, many ex-felons perceive restrictions on voting rights as punitive. Therefore, felony disenfranchisement should be examined in terms of criminological theories of sanctions. In Florida, ex-felons are prevented from voting after the completion of their sentence until they go through a lengthy and in some cases impossible process of rights restoration. The consequences of this policy have resulted in hundreds of thousands of Floridians who have completed their sentences, but are unable to vote. This research employs 54 semi-structured interviews with men convicted of felonies in Florida who have lost the right to vote, but have completed their sentencing obligations to the state. Our purpose is to better understand the meaning former offenders attribute to the loss of their civil rights. Findings from this study suggest that many former offenders view this type of punishment as illegitimate and are angered by both the complex system of restoration and the inability to participate in democratic life. Other ex-offenders are embarrassed or fatalistic about their loss of rights. The implications for criminal justice policies and practices are discussed.