A Felony Fiasco
Quick quiz: Is releasing heart-shaped helium balloons into the air while walking with your sweetheart (A) a romantic gesture or (B) a felony offense?
If you answered (B), then you may be from Florida, because you’re right. Yes, you read that correctly: in the Sunshine State you can be charged with a felony if the balloons you are holding slip from your hand and fly up into the great blue beyond.
That’s absurd—not to mention kind of hilarious. But insane as such laws are, the consequences of being convicted of a felony are anything but funny. Let’s take a look at some of the hard-to-believe ways that felons continue to be punished even after they’ve done their time.
1. You can’t travel, but you also can’t find a home
As a convicted felon, you may have trouble obtaining a US passport. But even if you do manage that, you may still find it difficult to travel to other countries. Canada often turns felons away from the border, and countries that require visas to visit, like China, Russia, and Jamaica, retain the right to bar you from entry.
OK, well what if you just want to settle down and rent an apartment or buy a home? A criminal record can make it very hard to find a place to stay. And throughout the country many states have made it legal for homeowner associations to keep ex-cons out of their communities.
2. You can’t vote
In the 2016 presidential election, 6.1 million Americans (a disproportionate number of them people of color) were not able to vote because they had once been convicted of a felony. These are people who have paid their debt to society and yet continue to be denied one of the fundamental rights of citizenship. These restrictions vary across the country, ranging from states like Vermont and Hawaii that allow prisoners to vote, to states like Florida, where the loss of your rights could be permanent. Speaking of Florida, check out how our friend, Desmond Meade, is working to restore voting rights for felons down there.
3. You can’t serve on a jury
It’s probably safe to say that few people get very excited about jury duty. And yet the right to a trial by an impartial jury was considered so important by the Founders that it was included in the Bill of Rights. Why? Because few things are more democratic than a defendant’s fate being determined by a collection of citizens from his or her community (instead of by some representative of the government). But what sounds fair and wonderful in theory does not always work out that way in practice.
There’s a long history in this country of excluding African Americans from juries. Ensuring that felons can’t serve is just another way of (disproportionately, again) denying people of color their full citizenship. And mull this over: It’s known that all-white juries convict black defendants more often than they do white defendants.
4. You can’t get public benefits
Yes, you were convicted, but let’s say you’ve put that behind you. You want to turn your life around. So you decide to return to school. But guess what? Based on the crime you committed, you’re not eligible to receive some grants and forms of aid.
What if you’re having a hard time making ends meet? In some states you can’t get food stamps, and in others, you can’t get temporary financial assistance (what’s sometimes still called welfare) from the government.
5. You can’t get a job
Imagine that, even with those disadvantages we just mentioned, you get into school and you thrive. Imagine you graduate from law school! You’re on your way to a better life, right? Well, not exactly. In many states, like Florida, convicted felons cannot take the bar exam and so cannot practice the profession they trained for. And that’s not the only job you can’t get. Here are just a few examples.
- It varies by state, but people with a felony on their record are often barred from holding political office.
- Dogcatcher, beautician, elevator contractor, pyrotechnic distributor: any job that requires a license may be out of reach for convicted felons.
- There’s a good chance that your conviction means you won’t be able to join the Armed Forces.
Is Change Coming?
The good news is that there are movements underway in many states to address this unconscionable denial of civil rights. From voting rights and public benefits to employment opportunities, change is coming. More and more policymakers understand that continuing to punish felons beyond their sentence helps no one. Stand with us today and pressure your local leaders to restore felons’ rights.