Donald Trump gets to sidestep the consequences of his conviction. Most people with criminal records don’t

Checking off the ‘convicted felon’ box keeps millions of Americans in the margins, but it’s fueling Trump’s campaign. It’s a phrase that criminal justice reformers want to avoid, Alex Woodward reports

Tuesday 18 June 2024 18:04 BST
Former president Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at Trump Tower in New York City on May 31, 2024
Former president Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at Trump Tower in New York City on May 31, 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

After he was wrongfully convicted the first time, D’Juan Collins was branded a “felon” in the eyes of the law.

That label impacts “everything,” says Collins, a paralegal and advocate focused on mass incaceration at New York social justice organization VOCAL-NY.

“That label really paints a black eye, almost like I’m blacklisted from certain opportunities that other citizens would be able to have,” he tells The Independent.

“And it leaves me in a poverty state,” he says. “If I can’t get a job, if I can’t obtain suitable housing, then how do you expect me to survive and thrive in a society where we’re supposed to?”

But for former president Donald Trump – who can leverage his wealth, power and influence to sidestep the consequences of his white-collar crimes that threatened 2016 elections – that “felon” label is helping him rake in millions of dollars.

For any other person with 34 felony convictions, being branded a “felon” for life could threaten access to jobs, housing, healthcare, childcare and the ability to vote, let alone a path to the presidency.

Trump, through his fundraising campaign, even branded himself a “convicted felon” on June 1, two days after he was convicted in his New York hush money trial, and then again on June 7: “THEY MADE ME A POLITICAL PRISONER. A CONVICTED FELON!”

“How’s that even possible?” Collins says. “Why isn’t a president receiving those same limitations?”

Donald Trump gifts Logan Paul mugshot T-shirt

In statements and press releases supporting President Joe Biden and other Democratic officials, the Democratic National Committee has called Trump a “convicted felon” and a “criminal” dozens of times since the verdict.

The DNC also bought up billboards in Phoenix written in English and in Spanish reading “Trump already attacked Arizona’s democracy once. Now he’s back as a convicted felon. He’s out for revenge and retribution. Trump: unfit to serve.”

Trump, meanwhile, memorialized his Georgia mugshot in T-shirts and Christmas wrapping paper, sweaters and souvenir credit cards, and leaned on his convictions, indictments and a narrative that paints himself as a victim to raise millions of dollars for his legal defense.

His campaign reported raising nearly $53 million within 24 hours after a jury in Manhattan found him guilty of falsifying business records connected to a hush money scheme involving an adult film star and a conspiracy to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election.

On May 31, one day after the verdict, the Biden campaign issued a statement calling him “convicted felon Donald Trump” for the first time.

“Look, folks, this campaign has entered uncharted territory. Last week, for the first time in American history, a former president is convicted – a convicted felon,” President Biden said during a campaign event in Connecticut on June 3.

Last year, two political action committees supporting the likely Republican presidential nominee spent more than $55 million on his legal bills, with more than half of that cash spent within the second half of the year.

“When you have a legal team like Donald Trump, just throwing millions and millions of dollars to his legal defense, it kind of makes you wonder what the system is really about,” Collins says. “It’s all about greed, and if you have the money to build this greedy system, then you are afforded justice.”

Anti-Trump demonstrators protest outside Trump Tower in New York on May 31.
Anti-Trump demonstrators protest outside Trump Tower in New York on May 31. (AFP via Getty Images)

Republican strategists have also dubiously suggested Trump’s felony convictions could even be used to win over Black voters frustrated with the criminal justice system, a message that President Biden ridiculed as “pandering and peddling lies and stereotypes for your vote, so he can win for himself, not for you.”

Other GOP allies are also hoping that the verdict could boost Trump’s support among Latino voters by tying the charges against him to Latin American regimes that targeted political rivals.

Republican parties in at least two states – Vermont and Nevada – expressly prohibit promoting candidates with felony convictions. Vermont was the only state that Trump didn’t win during presidential primaries, but party officials now appear to be figuring out how to accommodate Trump after he formally receives the Republican nomination in July.

And GOP officials in Nevada went as far as changing their bylaws so they can boost Trump.

“The Nevada GOP is making the embarrassing admission that they knew all along Trump would be convicted and ripped out the ‘convicted felon’ clause of their platform to make an exception for him, showing Nevada voters that there’s no end to their corruption,” according to DNC spokesperson Stephanie Justice.

But for the nearly 20 million Americans with felony convictions, being branded a felon is a modern-day “scarlet letter,” says Ed Chung, vice president of initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice and a former federal prosecutor in the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice.

“People who don’t have power or aren’t as famous as Donald Trump is – the effect of that could be life altering, and it affects everything from employment to housing to social relationships and so forth,” he tells The Independent.

Marjorie Taylor Greene says Trump and Jesus are alike because they’re both ‘Convicted Felons’

Carroll Bogert, president of criminal justice nonprofit publication the Marshall Project, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled “Don’t call Trump a felon.”

Branding Trump a “felon” attempts to “take Trump down a peg, to label him as no better than a common criminal,” she wrote.

“And that is the problem,” she added. “Most people in prisons and jails in America come from lives of poverty and discrimination. A label such as ‘felon’ or ‘inmate’ contributes to keeping them at the margins of society.”

Trump’s conviction “serves as a powerful reminder that accountability should know no status or privilege,” according to David Ayala, executive director of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted Peoples & Families Movement, which has also urged the media and others to avoid using “felon” as a noun.

That phrasing only serves “to dehumanize and generalize, perpetuating harmful narratives that distort the treatment and perception of individuals within our community,” said Ayala.

The former president is “obviously not a typical person in the criminal justice system,” Chung tells The Independent; he’s a billionaire with a multi-million dollar legal campaign spanning several jurisdictions, keeping him out of jail, and helping him get elected to the White House to insulate himself against criminal prosecution.

But campaigns spreading the “felon” label keep alive a “stigma that in a lot of ways can’t be overcome,” he says.

“It’s something that applies regardless of who the individual defendant is, something that applies regardless of which political interest you have, and the repeated use of it, and to entrench it in our lexicon, I think is something that we want to avoid,” Chung says. “Just the fact that it’s something that people have been talking about in relation to Donald Trump shows how important language is.”

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in