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The disenfranchisement of felons has long been challenged as anti-democratic and disproportionately harmful to communities of color. Critiques of this practice have led to the gradual liberalization of state laws that expand voting rights for those who have served their sentences. Despite these legal developments, ex-felons face an increasingly difficult path to regaining the franchise. This article argues that, for ex-felons in particular, criminal justice debt can serve as an insurmountable obstacle to the resumption of voting rights and broader participation in society. This article uses the term “carceral debt” to identify criminal justice penalties levied on prisoners, “user fees” assessed to recoup the operating costs of the justice system, and debt incurred during incarceration, including mounting child support obligations.

In recent years, another disturbing voting rights challenge has emerged that has received little attention from scholars. State appellate and federal courts across the country have affirmed the constitutionality of statutes that require ex-felons to satisfy the payment of all carceral debts in order to resume voting privileges. Such a paradigm has a clearly differential impact on the poor: if only those who can pay their debts after a criminal conviction can regain the right to vote, those who cannot will remain perpetually disenfranchised, rendering them “shadow citizens” and raising a host of policy and constitutional questions.

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117 Penn St. L. Rev. 349 (2012)