What is Civil Death?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Civil death refers to the loss of all civil rights of a person that is still physically alive. Civil death is usually a consequence of felony conviction, which may deprive the convict of all basic civil rights both during the time of punishment and after a sentence is completed. Some civil rights may be restored following completion of a criminal sentence, but this varies depending on jurisdiction. The term “civil death” may also sometimes be used to describe a specific situation in which rights are denied, particularly in court cases where a judge has determined that no defense may apply.

"Civil death" might be used in court cases where a judge has determined that no defense may apply.
"Civil death" might be used in court cases where a judge has determined that no defense may apply.

The role of civil death plays an important part in the political and social philosophies of a country. In a nation where citizens are afforded ample civil rights, civil death can forever alter the course of a person's future. Under more totalitarian regimes where individual civil rights may be less of a concern, this type of punishment may carry less weight or may not even be a legal concept. The more rights a citizen is afforded, the more devastating the potential consequences of civil death.

Some of the rights that may be suspended or removed by a civil death include the right to personal freedom, free speech, voting rights, property rights, gun ownership, and privacy. These rights are almost universally suspended during incarceration, but many extend beyond the period of jail time. In many places, a person convicted of a felony can never partake in voting again, and may be excluded from serving on a jury. Some states and regions do allow the partial restoration of rights on a case by case basis, but this type of civil restoration is far from universal.

Advocates for prisoner's rights argue against the justice of permanent civil death to convicts who complete a prison sentence. Since the convict has, in effect, paid a debt to society equal to his or her crime, it can be argued that to continue to withhold rights is an undue hardship. Moreover, some argue that the total loss of rights upon conviction places prisoner's in a vulnerable position for abuse without recourse both in and after prison.

In some cases, civil death may refer to situations in which normal rights are suspended by the government. This is often done in the name of security precautions, and may include suspension of the right to privacy or protection from unreasonable search. In more controversial cases, it may include the suspension of habeas corpus, which ordinarily prevents the holding of a suspect without charges beyond a time limit. While some argue that measures such as the suspension of civil rights can help increase security in a dangerous world, critics frequently return to Benjamin Franklin's maxim that “they who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security.”

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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