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Conviction: Civil Disabilities - Historical Background

rights death england felon

The view that criminals forfeit their rights as citizens is not new. Both the Greeks and Romans imposed on a convicted person the punishment of "infamy," which forbade him to exercise the rights of a free citizen. Early English law followed the same principle: a person convicted of a felony was declared "attainted," losing all his civil rights and forfeiting his property; collectively, these sanctions were called "civil death." More dramatic was the doctrine, based on the fiction that the criminal's act evidenced his entire family's corruption, of "corruption of the blood," which prohibited the felon's heirs from inheriting his estate. Since in most instances the felon in England was executed, this consequence of his act fell upon his family and heirs, who lost whatever property he had owned. When the death penalty was abolished for many crimes in nineteenth-century England this sanction might have died as well. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution specifically prohibited corruption of blood except in the case of a person convicted of treason. Nonetheless, the notion of civil death persisted, and many of the rights that would have died with the executed felon in medieval England continued to be denied to the felon who, in nineteenth-century America and England, was merely imprisoned and later released. The vast majority of states have now rejected the idea of a blanket death as an adjunct of conviction for a crime, but every state, to some degree, still imposes civil disabilities on ex-offenders.

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