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. They pay by completing a jail sentence and perhaps probation, but they continue to pay the rest of their lives because of the state and federal laws denying felons certain rights enjoyed by all other U.S. citizens. You may be surprised by the number and types of restrictions that apply to felons when they have completed their time in prison.
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
The states are all over the map when it comes to restricting a felon's right to vote, temporarily or permanently. It is common in the United States to forbid a felon from voting. In recent years, more states have been granting felons the right to vote at some point, but state approaches to felon disenfranchisement vary tremendously.
In two states, Maine and Vermont, felons do not lose their right to vote, even while in jail. In 14 states and the District of Columbia, when felons are incarcerated they lose their right to vote, but the right is restored when they get out.
In 22 other states, the loss of voting rights continues after incarceration ends. This can be while the felon is on probation or for some other period, such as until they pay outstanding fines. In the other 12 states, 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.
The Right to Travel Abroad
Under federal law, a felon is allowed to apply for and receive a passport. However, not all countries allow those with a past felony 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 in most states, this does not apply to felons. For example, in California a person convicted of a state or federal felony can never own or possess a gun in the state, a ban that applies both to 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 (e.g. 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, child care professionals and jobs like attorney, doctor or architect that require a professional license.
Many types of job discrimination are forbidden, but private employers are permitted to refuse to hire felons, often conducting background checks on job applicants.
In some states, felons are not able to sit on a jury or receive state assistance. That is, convicted felons cannot apply for state grants or live in public housing. They are not eligible to seek federal cash assistance, SSI or food stamps. Convicted felons may also have less parental rights, especially in custody battles or divorces.