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The New Civil Death: Rethinking Punishment in the Era of Mass Conviction

Borrowing from its English forebears, the United States once had a
form of punishment called civil death. Civil death extinguished most
civil rights of a person convicted of a crime and largely put that person
outside the law’s protection. Civil death as an institution faded away in
the middle of the twentieth century. Policymakers recognized that
almost all convicted persons eventually rejoin society, and therefore, it
was wise and fair to allow them to participate in society with some
measure of equality.

This Article proposes that civil death has surreptitiously reemerged.
It no longer exists under that name, but effectually a new civil death is
meted out to persons convicted of crimes in the form of a substantial
and permanent change in legal status, operationalized by a network of
collateral consequences. A person convicted of a crime, whether misdemeanor or felony, may be subject to disenfranchisement (or deportation if a noncitizen ), criminal registration and community

notification requirements, and the ineligibility to live, work, or be present in a particular location. Some are not allowed to live outside of

civil confinement at all. In addition, the person may be subject to

occupational debarment or ineligibility to establish or maintain family

relations. While the entire array of collateral consequences may not
apply to any given person, the State is always able to add new disabilities or to extend existing limitations. As a practical matter, every
criminal sentence contains the following unwritten term:

The law regards you as having a “shattered character.” Therefore, in addition to any incarceration or fine, you are subject to legal restrictions and
limitations on your civil rights, conduct, employment, residence, and relationships. For the rest of your life, the United States and any State or locality where you travel or reside may impose, at any time, additional restrictions and limitations they deem warranted. Their power to do so is
limited only by their reasonable discretion. They may also require you to
pay the expense of these restrictions and limitations.

For many people convicted of crimes, the most severe and long-
lasting effect of conviction is not imprisonment or fine. Rather, it is
being subjected to collateral consequences involving the actual or
potential loss of civil rights, parental rights, public benefits, and employment opportunities.

The magnitude of the problem is greater than ever. The commonly
used term “mass incarceration” implies that the most typical tool of
the criminal justice system is imprisonment. Indeed, there are two
million people in American prisons and jails, a huge number, but one
which is dwarfed by the six-and-a-half million or so on probation or

parole and the tens of millions in free society with criminal records.
The vast majority of people who have been convicted of crimes are not
currently in prison. However, because of their criminal records, they
remain subject to governmental regulation of various aspects of their
lives and concomitant imposition of benefits and burdens. People
convicted of crimes are not subject to just one collateral consequence,
or even a handful. Instead, hundreds and sometimes thousands of
such consequences apply under federal and state constitutional provisions, statutes, administrative regulations, and ordinances. As one
Ohio court recognized in 1848, “[D]isabilities . . . imposed upon the
convict” are “part of the punishment, and in many cases the most important part.”