Senator David Vitter (R-La.) has proposed an amendment to the House Farm Bill that would deny convicted sex offenders access to food stamps for life, removing over two million people from welfare benefits.
The first time you read that statement, it may not sound all that bad. Right-wing media and websites have certainly been applauding it. In the words of conservative political writer Debra Heine, "Thank God we can all agree taxpayers don't have to feed murderers, rapists, and pedophiles."
But that's precisely the problem. The criminal justice system in the U.S. punishes individuals, but does not rehabilitate them in the slightest. And once it spits them out, they are forever branded as an "ex-con," providing almost no opportunity to get a job, earn money, or just function normally within society. Even after they pay their dues, we continue to punish them and refuse to allow them back into the fold.
Now I'm not saying that sex offenders shouldn't be held accountable for their actions — they obviously should — but let's not pretend that we're cutting these people some slack by giving them food stamps. It's literally the least we can do to transition them back into the community. Let's also not pretend that denying them food stamps is morally sound, or that it's even practical.
A similar ban was tried in the late 1990s that targeted convicted drug felons. The results were disastrous. Once out of prison, these felons often joined the sex trade or returned to drugs and crime because they had no other options. This led to high rates of HIV, greater incidents of crime and violence, and an increase in recidivism. In fact, the results were so terrible that many states decided to opt out of the ban because it was doing far more harm than good.
In addition, many organizations, including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, are concerned that this policy would disproportionately hurt the African-American population as they constitute a plurality of convicted criminals. Not only would the ban deny welfare to the actual convict, but it would also hurt his or her family since the felon's income would still be counted in the family's application for food stamp benefits.
The ban doesn't make sense economically, either. The money saved by cutting these benefits would simply transfer over to the prison systems, as it did with the drug-felon ban in the 90s. And by making it that much more difficult for these individuals to reintegrate into society, the ban increases crime and violence rates, adding both to costs and security concerns.
And obviously, all of this is assuming that the convict in question is irredeemable. What about those who were wrongfully convicted? What about those who were convicted decades ago, have reformed, and are now living on food stamps in their old age? What about certain groups like African-American men who were convicted of crimes by segregated juries years ago?
The only realm in which this bill makes sense is the political one. The Republicans have been trying to cut welfare for years, and no politician, including the Democrats, wants to argue for providing convicted criminals with welfare benefits. But if we allow this amendment to pass, it is essentially the same as sentencing all convicted criminals to the death penalty — with a little more pain and suffering along the way.