Senator Vitter: Stop Punishing Those Who’ve Done Their Time

“Do the crime, do the time.”  It’s a snappy line, but in the US, it’s far from accurate. 

In reality, the formerly incarcerated are routinely denied the rights and privileges of full citizenship – even though they’ve done their time.

The latest example: A proposal from Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana that permanently cuts out anyone who has been convicted of a violent crime from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has passed the Senate.

Punishing People for Life

Vitter introduced this amendment to the Farm Bill currently being debated in Congress on Tuesday, May 22. The Farm Bill is renewed every five years and includes subsidies for agriculture.

Vitter’s office issued a press release saying his amendment “would prohibit convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles from receiving food stamps.”

This rhetoric is troubling, considering that it ignores the fact that Vitter’s amendment would also apply to anyone who has been convicted of a violent crime.

The amendment would cut off the formerly incarcerated from food stamps for life and would deny states the right to opt out of enforcement.

Amendment Based on Questionable Evidence

Even more disturbing is that Vitter’s amendment is based on faulty evidence. Colorlines reports that the research cited for the amendment does not even mention violent felons.

The part of the research Vitter’s press release does focus on is overpayment of food stamps in 2010 and 2011 in Louisiana, which amounted to 0.03% of all the state’s food stamp payments.  And Louisiana actually showed improvement in the rate of overpayment during the same period. 

The link between Senator Vitter’s amendment and this data is unclear, to say the least.

What is clear is that the continued criminalization and stigmatization of formerly incarcerated folks who have served their time causes more harm than good for our communities, especially children and families.

Bob Greenstein, founder and CEO of The Center on Budget & Policy Priorities argues in his recent blog on the Huffington Post that Vitter’s amendment targets many individuals who committed crimes in their early teen years, depriving them and their dependents of access to a basic social service.

“[T]he amendment would mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members,” wrote Greenstein. “So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren's benefits would be cut.”

Current Policies Create a Racial Caste System

Vitter and his colleagues backing this appalling and ill-advised policy fail to realize that having a history of incarceration already makes it difficult to get a job.

Researchers at Columbia University and the Urban Institute discovered that 60% of inmates remain unemployed the first year after their release.

And according to a recent New York Times article, the number of Americans incarcerated has grown four-fold since 1980, largely due to judges issuing them longer sentences.

Harvard sociologist Bruce Western is calling prison the “new poverty trap,” outlining how the prison system is correlated with poverty and disproportionately affects people of color.

The NAACP reports that, although African Americans make up only 13% of the American population, they are vastly overrepresented in the prison system at a whopping 40%.  In addition, the NAACP also found that two-thirds of those incarcerated are people of color.

Given this data, it’s clear that our current policies and laws are creating what Michelle Alexander, author of the New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow, describes as a caste of people trapped in the cycle of incarceration and poverty. 

And just as with any caste system, it’s not only the individual who is trapped.

Impact Beyond the Individual

When government legislators take such drastic actions against society’s most oppressed groups, they don’t seem to consider that unfair policies like Vitter’s amendment affect entire families and communities, not just the individuals themselves.

The media and politicians also blame the communities that are home to these formerly convicted individuals – largely communities of color – of being complacent to violence and crime, notorious for being drug hubs, and allowing social ills such as prostitution.

How can these criminals not exist when their own communities normalize such behaviors?, critics say.

However, this argument largely ignores that the stigma against the incarcerated makes this cycle of poverty nearly inevitable, and when this stigma influences government policy, this cycle becomes nearly impenetrable.

What Do We Actually Want from Our Justice System?

But why is this so? Why must these individuals who have already done their time for their crime face further stigmatization and criminalization once they leave the system?

What recourse do these individuals have when they cannot find a job because of their criminal record and the government does not provide a social safety net or basic services?

These challenging circumstances only serve to make the formerly incarcerated more likely to reoffend and revert to illegal activity, be it through drug trafficking/dealing or stealing, to provide for themselves and for their families.

ThinkProgress reports:

“A recent study found that the food stamp ban has actually pushed young mothers into prostitution in order to feed their families, increasing the risk of HIV infection. More than 90 percent of the people in the study had been worried at one point or another how they were going to feed themselves and their families.”

Locking people up and removing the social safety net does not support offenders to change their ways or keep them from reoffending – and isn’t that what we actually want?  Isn’t that what will actually lead to less crime and safer communities? 

Invest in People, Not Prisons and Poverty

Our system of mass incarceration costs our communities millions of dollars each year, diverting scarce resources from more pressing social issues like education, job training and creation, and health services.

We need our elected leaders to focus on actions and policies that generate prosperity.  If they are worried about who's using SNAP, they should focus on how to build people up so they no longer need it. 

They should not be strengthening the mass incarceration poverty trap that complicates the lives of the formerly incarcerated and ultimately has negative implications for all of us.

Readers: What do you think of Senator Vitter’s amendment?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.