In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Collateral Consequences of Felony Conviction and Imprisonment

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Balancing the Costs and Benefits of Imprisonment

Criminology Collateral Consequences of Felony Conviction and Imprisonment
Sara Wakefield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0162


The so-called collateral consequences of imprisonment encompass a host of legal restrictions and deleterious outcomes for former inmates, their families, and their communities. These may result from formal legal barriers associated with a felony conviction to extralegal effects resulting from periods of imprisonment. The universe of collateral consequences, a phrase some scholars decline to use because it diminishes their importance, affects all domains of social life and results from a patchwork of legal restrictions, conditions imposed by the criminal justice system upon release, and the indirect effects of imprisonment on inmates’ families, neighborhoods, and employment prospects. These “collateral consequences,” “punishments beyond the offender,” “invisible punishments,” and “extralegal sentences” form the basis for a growing field in criminology, sociology, and law focused on the contemporary prison boom in the United States. Imprisonment has always influenced the lives of former inmates well after they leave the institution behind, but the rise in imprisonment since 1970 in the United States has exacerbated these effects as well as concentrated them among some segments of the population. Thus, while former felons have always been barred from voting in some states, for example, it is only as a result of mass incarceration that these laws have influenced the outcomes of elections. Finally, though some of the work on collateral consequences described here examines imprisonment in other contexts (e.g., in the United Kingdom), most work in the area is centered on the United States because of its exceptionality with respect to high rates of imprisonment.

General Overviews

Several important works describe the legal and social consequences of criminal conviction and imprisonment. Pattillo, et al. 2004 and Mauer and Chesney-Lind 2002 are edited volumes covering collateral consequences, both are highly accessible and notable for the quality of the contributors and breadth of coverage. Olivares, et al. 1996 presents an analysis of changes in collateral consequences at the state level, demonstrating significant change in some forms of legal restrictions placed on felons. Comfort 2007 is a review piece focused on the collateral consequences of imprisonment for those other than the inmate, with an emphasis on children and families. Taken together, the works listed below offer a broad overview of the prison boom and criminal conviction and the variety of consequences that stem from both.

  • Comfort, Megan. 2007. Punishment beyond the legal offender. Annual Review of Law and Social Science 3:271–296.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.lawsocsci.3.081806.112829

    An excellent review piece describing the multitude of effects of imprisonment on the children and families of inmates. Notable for its theoretical sophistication, coverage of qualitative and quantitative work, and range of topics discussed.

  • Mauer, Marc, and Meda Chesney-Lind. 2002. Invisible punishment: The collateral consequences of mass imprisonment. New York: New Press.

    An edited volume covering a wide range of collateral consequences, including restrictions on housing, labor market outcomes for former inmates, and the influence of incarceration on families and children. Notable for both the high quality of each chapter as well as the stature of the contributors in the field. Highly accessible.

  • Olivares, Kathleen M., Velmer S. Burton Jr., and Francis T. Cullen. 1996. The collateral consequences of a felony conviction: A national study of state legal codes 10 years later. Federal Probation 60:10–17.

    An analysis of collateral consequences at the state level from 1986 to 1996 in the United States. The work shows a pattern of increasing restriction, especially in the areas of criminal registration, the use of criminal convictions in family court to make divorce and parenting decisions, trust and safety restrictions (most notably bans on jury service and firearm ownership). At the same time, however, states had relaxed laws barring felons from voting and loosened restrictions on public employment.

  • Pattillo, Mary, David Weiman, and Bruce Western, eds. 2004. Imprisoning America: The social effects of mass incarceration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    An excellent edited volume by well-known scholars in the field, detailing a variety of collateral consequences of mass incarceration.

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