In a sleepy moment on the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Democrats accepted an amendment to the long-delayed farm bill that, if passed in its current form, would represent another step in turning previously incarcerated Americans into a permanent underclass. Certain classes of ex-convicts would be denied food stamp benefits for life, under the amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter (cannily, the crime of soliciting prostitutes is exempted from this ban). While the amendment may sound like common sense, it’s actually a harshly punitive, counterproductive policy that will only increase crime and trap people in the criminal justice system.
The amendment was clearly created as a wedge issue, a perennial Republican effort to get Democratic senators to vote for something that can get used against them later in attack ads. Tom Coburn is a master of this; during the healthcare bill he offered an amendment banning sex offenders from receiving health insurance benefits for Viagra.
Vitter presented the bill as prohibiting “convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles” from food stamp benefits. And in general those are the categories – murder, rape, aggravated sexual assault, domestic violence where sexual assault is involved, child molestation, and so on. No senator would vote to “give” violent offenders federal benefits, and in this case they didn’t have to. Rather than put the amendment up for a vote, the manager of the farm bill, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, merely accepted the amendment into the base bill. The amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent, which is to say that nobody objected to it on the floor. In reality, it’s unlikely that most senators even knew the amendment’s contents.
“Some people say these are unsavory crimes, and I agree,” said Bob Greenstein, founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the first to notice the amendment’s passage. “But there’s a broader principle here. Suppose you did something terrible when you were 19, and you were straight the rest of your life, you paid your debt to society, now you’re 82 and living in poverty, should you be stripped of food stamps? Is this the right thing to do?”
47.8 million Americans are enrolled in the food stamp program, and some subset of them may have a criminal past, even a violent criminal past. By making the lifetime food stamp ban retroactive, you just cut an indeterminate number of ex-convicts off from what has become a primary safety net benefit. In addition, under the amendment, any dependent children or family members would also lose benefits. Because the standard is merely “conviction,” you’re going to get people convicted of a violent crime who may have been innocent – perhaps African-Americans from the south convicted decades ago by segregated juries, Greenstein suggested – caught up in this ban. Given crime statistics, we know that minorities would be disproportionately affected. And once you establish this principle in law, Greenstein adds, “the inevitable question would be, should you add other crimes?”
Actually, we have experience with this, and the data show that banning convicted criminals from federal benefits has tremendously negative effects for society. The 1996 welfare reform law imposes a lifetime ban from food stamps, as well as welfare benefits, on anyone convicted of a drug-related felony, allegedly to prevent the trade of food stamps for drugs. The law included an opt-out for the states, which co-manage the program. And many states have taken advantage of that, altering the law to exempt those who have completed probation or parole or enrolled in a drug treatment program. Other states end the ban a certain number of years after the completion of the sentence. And 16 states, along with the District of Columbia, opted out of the ban entirely. In 10 states – Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming – the full ban remains in effect. So we have a natural experiment, where we can see the effects of denying benefits to ex-convicts, who already are stigmatized in ways that make it hard to find steady work and adapt back into society.
The results are really awful. One study shows that convicted felons denied food assistance have higher rates of HIV than their counterparts; the ban pushes people into the sex trade to make a living. Those denied benefits also, as you might expect, have higher rates of return to drug use and crime, leading to higher rates of recidivism. Far from reducing costs for states, the law just shifts those costs from the food stamp program to prison management programs.
Punitive post-sentencing laws like this create a permanent underclass out of the largely minority ex-convict population, a situation that attorney Michelle Alexander described in her 2012 book “The New Jim Crow.” Benefits like food stamps are crucial in the early stages of transitioning ex-felons into community living. Without public assistance in this critical stage, drug offenders tend to remain trapped in the criminal justice cycle, which disadvantages both their lives and the broader society. It also diminishes the citizenship rights of an entire group of millions of Americans. As Celia Cole of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, puts it, “Who are we to say, ‘You made a mistake. You paid your debt to society. We’re letting you reenter society, but you can’t eat?’”
And states have begun to understand this. New Jersey, Delaware and South Dakota recently softened their bans on denying public assistance to drug offenders. With strained state budgets and the explosion of spending on prisons, state legislators are moving in the direction of questioning the value of the ban. Lawmakers in Missouri and West Virginia have proposed lifting it.
So just as the states start to recognize how counterproductive this all is, here comes the federal government with another ban. Perhaps denying benefits to violent crime offenders sounds more logical than denying them to nonviolent drug offenders (though when you consider that criminals are fed through public resources in prison, the logic starts to collapse). But the dynamic is the same – these ex-felons will end up without enough support to survive outside prison, and in many cases return to a life of crime. So in the name of moral preening, bans like this only endanger society more, to say nothing of the social and economic costs. “The principle should be, if you were convicted, did you pay your debt, serve your sentence, comply with probation?” said Bob Greenstein of CBPP. “If you’ve done everything right, it doesn’t seem to me years later that we ought to be doing this.”
There’s still time for lawmakers to rethink this amendment and at least modify it before the farm bill passes into law. Since CBPP highlighted the amendment, there’s been at least some attention on Capitol Hill to the implications. And there are options. Lawmakers could add a state opt-out to the amendment, or prevent the cuts in benefits to dependents of ex-felons, or nix the misguided amendment entirely.
It becomes harder to remove or modify the amendment now that it’s part of the base Senate bill. The House will pass its own version, and a conference committee will reconcile the two, meaning Republicans on that committee would have to agree to any changes to the Vitter amendment. And the issue is sure to get wrapped up with significant wrangling over cuts to food stamps. The Senate version cuts the program by $4 billion over 10 years, a savings that Stabenow’s office maintains comes from limiting fraud and misuse. An effort this week from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to restore that funding failed 70-26. The House version is even worse, with $20 billion in cuts and an estimated 2 million beneficiaries kicked off the program (the Senate rejected cuts that deep, which gives them some leverage in conference committee negotiations). So that discrepancy has to get ironed out, and the Vitter amendment just adds another thing to negotiate.
While the Vitter amendment won’t save much money, the bill remains, as ever, larded up with giveaways to giant agribusinesses. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group showed that 75 percent of all crop subsidy payments in past farm bills flow to the top 10 percent of farmers. Even though this year’s bill finally ends direct subsidy payments to large farmers, it plows most of that money into expanded crop insurance support, which benefits the same interests.
Congressional leadership has promised a final bill by the end of June, so time is running out to deal with the Vitter amendment, an egregious measure to punish ex-convicts even after they have served their sentences.