What Rights Do Convicted Felons Lose?

By Chris Blank ; Updated May 31, 2017
prisoners in jail

Convicted felons face a number of difficulties in attempting to reintegrate themselves into society. The difficulty in finding work is well documented. Convicted felons may also find it difficult to find accommodations or to participate in many areas of life that most Americans take for granted. Many individuals and groups consider this circumstance to be part of the just punishment for those who break the law, even if such punishment persists well after the convicted felons have completed their sentences.

The Right to Vote

Most states prohibit individuals who are incarcerated from voting while they are serving their terms, or even while they are on parole. However, upon completing their sentences or parole, many convicted felons discover that it will be difficult or impossible to restore their voting rights. Some states allow convicted felons to vote only after a waiting period, while others require a pardon or similar action by the governor or state legislature. Other states bar convicted felons from voting permanently. (See Resources.)

Convicted felons are sometimes misled to believe they do not have the right to vote. In other cases, repressive means are used to discourage convicted felons and other "undesirables" from voting. Many conservative groups and public officials have openly stated their opposition to allowing convicted felons to vote. Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors was quoted as stating "As frank as I can be," he said, "We're opposed to [restoring voting rights] because felons don't tend to vote Republican."

The Right to Hold Public Office

There is no provision in the Constitution that prohibits convicted felons from seeking and holding national level public office. However, each house of Congress is allowed to take a vote to expel any member deemed unfit or unqualified to serve. This provision is often used to remove senators and representatives whose involvement in unsavory or illegal activities has been exposed, as well as those members who have actually been convicted of felonies. State laws vary, but many states bar convicted felons (and even some individuals convicted of misdemeanors) from seeking or holding elective office. Officials convicted of felonies while in office may be removed under the same laws.

The Right to Bear Arms

Firearms dealers are required to run background checks before finalizing any transaction to determine the eligibility of the customer to purchase a firearm. Besides mental incompetence, a criminal record is held to be a bar against purchasing a firearm. Before 1998, there was a five-day waiting period before a firearm purchase could be completed, to allow for background checks. However, that system had a number of loopholes that allowed felons to purchase guns without undergoing a background check. The system has since been replaced with an electronic system designed to conduct an immediate background check. (See Resources.)

The Right to Travel Abroad

Contrary to what many people believe, convicted felons are not barred from obtaining a passport in the United States. A passport is intended to be a document that establishes a person's identity and status as a citizen of the country which issued the passport. However, convicted felons often face severe restrictions in traveling abroad because many countries impose visa requirements on individuals with criminal records. Unlike a passport, a visa is seen as a privilege, and the issuing country has the right to refuse entry to any person seen as a threat or as unsuitable, including convicted felons.

Expert Insight

A convicted felon may regain many, if not all, of the rights he has lost if he receives an official pardon from a governor or other official in a position to issue pardons. As stated, voting rights and the right to serve in public office vary according to the state where the convicted felon resides. However, simply moving to a different state will not automatically restore the rights a convicted felon has lost. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution requires states to respect (and in many instances uphold) the laws of other states. The best advice is to consult with an attorney to resolve any questions concerning such circumstances.

About the Author

Chris Blank is an independent writer and research consultant with more than 20 years' experience. Blank specializes in social policy analysis, current events, popular culture and travel. His work has appeared both online and in print publications. He holds a Master of Arts in sociology and a Juris Doctor.