Senate Farm Bill Amendment Sentences Former Felons and Their Families to Lifetime Hunger Risk

When my re-entry conference participant Cathy told me that she would live with her felony conviction for the rest of her life, she was referring mainly to her difficulties in overcoming employer biases.

Last week, the Senate tentatively decided that certain former prisoners and their families would also have to live hungry — or at least, at risk of hunger — for the rest of their lives.

It approved, by unanimous consent, an amendment to the Farm Bill that would deny food stamp benefits to convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles.

Thus, no debate and no vote for the record on this extraordinarily harsh, ill-considered and, some say, potentially racist exclusion from one of our most important safety net protections.

Politically convenient for Senators who might have shared this view, assuming they knew what the amendment said. Infuriated columnist David Dayen says most probably didn’t.

Those who did may have stayed silent in fear that they could later be attacked as “coddling violent criminals.” The well-worn Willie Horton meme.

Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reminds us that some of the ex-offenders are blacks who were convicted decades ago by all-white Southern juries.

Others may have been convicted because they were represented by an overburdened public defender who advised them to cop a plea — or because prosecutors withheld evidence that indicated they weren’t guilty.

But assume, for the sake of argument, that most were convicted for crimes they did commit.

The issue here is whether we, through our government, should create a new punishment beyond the sentence they’ve already served.

This would seem, as Greenstein says, to dismiss the very concept of rehabilitation. Or, to put it another way, to say to certain former prisoners, “You will never wholly re-enter our community.”

This, unfortunately is something our laws already do, though not so sweepingly as the Farm Bill amendment would.

Eleven states deny at least some former criminals the right to vote for the rest of their lives, unless they can get a pardon or another official action that restores the right.

Federal law mandates a lifetime ban against public housing occupancy and receipt of Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers by people who’ve been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in public housing.

The same ban applies to those required to permanently register as sex offenders — a broader category than we commonly think.

And, as the Farm Bill amendment’s sponsor, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) notes, there’s also a lifetime ban on food stamp eligibility for people convicted of drug felonies.

In this case, however, most states and the District of Columbia have opted out of or modified the ban, as the law allows. This is also true of a similar ban on cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

No opt out possible in the new ban, however.

Yet the banned former felons’ income would be counted if eligible families applied for food stamps, thus reducing the benefits they could get — or the benefits they’re getting now, since the whole amendment applies to everyone ever convicted of any of the specified crimes.

So we’d be punishing people who had nothing to do with the crime — and, as another angry blogger says, creating an incentive for families to break up.

Some of the Senator’s Twitter followers unkindly noted* that he had gotten a second chance after the news broke that he’d used an “escort service” — more likely than not, a criminal offense, though not prosecuted.

And it may seem just snarky of me to mention it. But it points to opportunities for rehabilitation — forgiveness even — that I think most of us support.

The Vitter amendment will actually make staying on the straight and narrow more difficult. Surely it would be tempting for someone who’s struggled unsuccessfully to find a steady, good-paying job to commit a crime in order to put food on the table.

When the Senator introduced his amendment, he offered no justification for it, except to suggest that it responds to a “misconception that the ban is already in the law.”

And, as I said, no one spoke up to challenge it. Greg Kaufmann at The Nation suggests that we advise Senate Democrats to check Lost and Found for their spines.

If they find them, they could still modify the amendment — perhaps with an opt-out — or even better, take it out of the Farm Bill altogether.

I would hope that some of their Republican colleagues would join them.

The proposed lifetime ban flies in the face of a core principle of our criminal justice system, our multifarious interests in promoting rehabilitation and basic human values like fairness, compassion and forgiveness.

These aren’t — or shouldn’t be — partisan issues.

* The Senator has apparently purged the tweets I originally saw. So you may not find any if you click the link, though one had been tweeted again when I last looked.

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