Collateral sanctions are legal restrictions on the rights and privileges of people who have experienced contact with the criminal justice system, particularly contact resulting in conviction. Usually placed in civil and regulatory codes, collateral sanctions may limit a person’s ability to vote, live in public housing, own a firearm, qualify for an occupational license, serve in the military, receive public benefits, sit on a jury, or borrow money for college, among other activities. Yet, because they are usually defined as “indirect” consequences of a conviction, they may never surface in the criminal justice process, and they frequently extend far beyond the sentence.
Such restrictions can deeply compromise the civic status and life chances of Americans with conviction records. But they are far from uniform: some serious restrictions are triggered by criminal justice involvement well short of a conviction, while others mark only some classes of offenders or operate only in some states. Layered into the federal system, multiplying the complications of criminal law and regulatory law, and imposed by civil servants with wide leeway in their interpretation of rules, American collateral sanctions are varied and complex. Their reach and severity in the United States appear to be unique in the democratic world and mark an important respect in which the American carceral state extends beyond mass incarceration.