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Civil Death in Modern Times: Reconsidering Felony Disenfranchisement in Minnesota

By Mark Haase. Full text here.

Civil death is a legal status with roots in ancient Greece and brought to the American colonies from England. It deprived individuals convicted of certain offenses, often those with capital or life sentences, of all of their legal rights. Although civil death mostly disappeared in the mid-twentieth century, one of its vestiges is the disenfranchisement of individuals convicted of a felony offense, enshrined in various forms in most state constitutions and statutes, including Minnesota’s. Minnesota has retained essentially the same disenfranchisement law adopted upon gaining statehood in 1857. However, since that time, Minnesota’s criminal justice system has undergone massive changes, especially in its expansion in scope—resulting in one of the highest rates of correctional control in the country, and one of the highest rates of felony disenfranchisement in the country and by far in the region.

This Article proposes that Minnesota’s essentially unchanged 157-year-old policy warrants careful reconsideration. An analysis of the modern manifestation of the policy reveals that its modern impact is greatly divergent from its original intent and impact, the product of a greatly expanded criminal justice system. A cost-benefit analysis also reveals that there essentially are no tangible benefits to Minnesota’s current disenfranchisement policy, that its costs are high, and that there are tangible benefits to reform. The policy provides no public safety benefit, may even reduce public safety, perpetuates racial disparities, confuses elections, and unnecessarily expends government resources. These negative policy impacts weighed against little to no benefit, combined with changes in criminal justice politics and recent national events, may provide a ripe time for reform.