Some believe that an individual who commits a crime goes to prison to pay a debt to society, but those convicted of serious crimes called felonies never actually finish paying that debt. Convicted felons pay by completing a jail sentence and perhaps probation, then they continue to pay the rest of their lives because of state and federal laws that deny them certain rights that are enjoyed by all other U.S. citizens.
Laws differ when it comes to restrictions on the civil rights of convicted felons, but many jurisdictions restrict a felon's parental rights, the right to vote, to travel, to own guns, to serve on juries, to hold certain jobs, and to get public assistance and housing.
The Right to Vote
States are all over the map when it comes to restricting a felon's right to vote, either temporarily or permanently. More states have been granting felons the right to vote at some point in recent years, but state approaches to felon disenfranchisement vary tremendously.
Felons do not lose their right to vote, even while in jail, in Maine and Vermont. they lose their right to vote while incarcerated in 14 states and the District of Columbia. The right is restored when they get out.
The loss of voting rights continues after incarceration ends in 22 other states. This can be while the felon is on probation or for some other period of time, such as until they pay outstanding fines. Felons lose the right to vote indefinitely for some crimes or face a time period after jail, parole, probation and fines are paid before they can vote in 12 other states.
The Right to Travel Abroad
A felon is allowed to apply for and receive a passport under federal law, but not all countries allow those with past felonies to enter. Even Canada imposes strict restrictions on the rights of an American with a criminal conviction to enter the country.
The Right to Own Guns
The Second Amendment guarantees the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms, but this doesn't apply to felons in most states. For example, a person convicted of a state or federal felony can never own or possess a gun in California. This ban applies to both adults and minors who were charged with a felony and tried as adults. The only exception is when the firearm rights of a felon are restored by a governor pardon, but those convicted of a felony involving the use of a dangerous weapon cannot get their firearms rights restored.
The Right to Hold Certain Jobs
Felons are prohibited by federal law from holding employment with the armed forces or law enforcement agencies. Some states have laws preventing felons from becoming teachers and child care professionals, or from working as an attorney, doctor or architect – careers that require professional licenses. Many types of job discrimination are forbidden, but private employers are permitted to refuse to hire felons, often after conducting background checks on job applicants.
Felons aren't able to sit on juries or receive state assistance in some states – they can't apply for state grants or live in public housing. They're not eligible to seek federal cash assistance, SSI or food stamps.
Restrictions on Parental Rights
Convicted felons might also have fewer parental rights, especially in custody battles or divorces. This depends on the type of crime that has been committed. A parent convicted of child endangerment or child abuse or any type of felony involving a child is likely to lose all custodial rights and will have significant limitations placed on child visitation. For murders and other violent crimes, it is likely that the felon will be found unfit to look after a child.
Custodial and visitation rights might be less seriously curtailed in cases of non-violent felony crimes such as tax fraud that did not pose any risk of harm to a child. Rights might be completely restored after the felon has served his sentence. The courts will look at what is in the best interest of the child in each case.
Can a Felon Have Rights Restored?
The process of getting your civil rights restored as a convicted felon is known as clemency. It's basically an act of mercy that releases you from the punishments that are attached to a felony crime. Clemency comes in various forms, such as the specific authority to own firearms or a restoration of the civil rights the person enjoyed before the felony conviction. Generally, you cannot get clemency relief from the registration requirements that are associated with sex offenses. Contact your state's Office of Clemency for details on how to apply.