Jail Media

Life with a felony

Let's say you, a friend, or a loved one has been convicted of a felony. That can certainly happen. Today, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1 in 31 Americans are incarcerated, on parole, or on probation. About half of these are convicted felons. So, given that hard fact, what kinds of life-restrictions are likely to shadow the life of a convicted felon?

As it turns out, there is no simple answer to that question. Legal codes, sentencing guidelines, and specified restrictions imposed on convicted felons vary from state to state.

Charging Documents
To get a clear sense of the restrictions imposed on someone you care about, you will want to study the convicted person's charging document. Under the U.S. Constitution, during an initial hearing or formal indictment, the court must read the specific charges and sentencing terms to the accused. A convicted felon must receive a copy of this document. Read and study it to understand a person's felony class and sentencing stipulations.

As you do that, make sure you understand that parole refers to conditions of release from incarceration during which period a convicted felon must report to and abide by restrictions imposed and monitored by a parole officer. By contrast, persons on probation report to a probation officer. In cases of felony convictions for less severe offenses, terms of probation may suspend jail or prison time while requiring things like community service or completing a drug rehabilitation program.

Under either parole or probation, severe restrictions apply. The typical "No-No" list bans the use of alcohol or other controlled substances, hanging out with other convicted felons, curfew violations, illicit cohabitation, or skipping out on required meetings with a parole or probation officer. Further, a felon may be subject to arbitrary and unwarranted searches or seizures which are normally forbidden under the Fourth Amendment.

Meanwhile, a convicted felon must face restrictions that may continue long after imprisonment, parole, or probation sentences have been served.

Voting Rights
In most states, a convicted felon is disenfranchised. That means he or she is denied the right to vote. However, states vary considerably when it comes to voting rights. In Maine and Vermont no one is disenfranchised following a criminal conviction of any kind. Even prisoners can vote. In Illinois, Michigan, and the District of Columbia, the right to vote is granted to persons on parole of probation.

In states that include Texas, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, people on parole or probation are denied voting rights. In other state, including Alabama and Nevada, voting rights are permanently suspended for certain felonies -- but not others. In Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia, a felony conviction means you are permanently denied voting rights.

Employment Opportunities
The terms of parole or probation require a person to be gainfully employed. And that's where the rubber meets the pot-holes of a mean street. In our society, as a general rule, it's incredibly difficult for a convicted felon to find any but menial, low paying jobs. In fact, inability to earn a living is a major cause of recidivism. The recidivism rate is the percentage of convicted offenders who end up back in jail or prison due to one or more repeat offenses. Overall, that rate hovers around an astonishing 60 percent*.

On the other hand, there are companies who actively seek felons. Parole and probation officers may keep lists of prospective employers. Long after a sentence is served, patience, networking skills, and acquiring job-skills training can pay off.

While on parole or probation, felons are normally required to remain within a specific city, county, or state jurisdiction. That fact can aggravate a search for gainful employment. However, after the terms of a sentence are fulfilled, an ex-felon is normally able to travel wherever they want and even apply for a passport.

Firearms Ownership
Under both federal and state laws felons cannot own firearms or ammunition -- period. Nor can a felon have access to a firearm owned by a spouse or relative. Exceptions may be granted for certain kinds of white-collar crimes but the only sure route to restoring firearms rights is having your felony conviction expunged. In those rare cases where a conviction is expunged it is, simply, erased from your record as if no crime had ever occurred.

* BJS 3-state study (2004) yields 66.7% recidivism rate, based on aggregate re-arrests over a 3-year period.  May, 2011 Pew Pole study report from Marquette U. Law School suggests a ~ 40 [+ or -] % rate with a range from about 30 to 46.

Related Resources
How to expunge a felony
State felony laws