Criminal Disenfranchisement and the Concept of Political Wrongdoing

Philosophy and Public Affairs 47 (4):378-411 (2019)
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Disagreement persists about when, if at all, disenfranchisement is a fitting response to criminal wrongdoing of type X. Positive retributivists endorse a permissive view of fittingness: on this view, disenfranchising a remarkably wide range of morally serious criminal wrongdoers is justified. But defining fittingness in the context of criminal disenfranchisement in such broad terms is implausible, since many crimes sanctioned via disenfranchisement have little to do with democratic participation in the first place: the link between the nature of a criminal act X (the ‘desert basis’) and a fitting sanction Y is insufficiently direct in such cases. I define a new, much narrower account of the kind of criminal wrongdoing which is a more plausible desert basis for disenfranchisement: ‘political wrongdoing’, such as electioneering, corruption, or conspiracy with foreign powers. I conclude that widespread blanket and post-incarceration disenfranchisement policies are overinclusive, because they disenfranchise persons guilty of serious, but non-political, criminal wrongdoing. While such overinclusiveness is objectionable in any context, it is particularly objectionable in circumstances in which it has additional large-scale collateral consequences, for instance by perpetuating existing structures of racial injustice. At the same time, current policies are underinclusive, thus hindering the aim of holding political wrongdoers accountable.



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Annette Zimmermann
University of Wisconsin, Madison

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