The Vindictiveness of the Vitter Amendment

With poverty stuck at a decades-high rate of 15 percent, food stamps have proven to be one of the best ways to stop low-income Americans from slipping deeper into poverty. So it’s under attack, of course. Last week, majority leader John Boehner warned that a deal on the farm bill, through which the food-stamp program is authorized and funded, was not coming together. The House and Senate have passed dramatically different bills and now leaders in both chambers are scrambling to come up with a compromise bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president before the current legislation expires at the end of this year. With the House scheduled to adjourn this Friday, time is running out.

The biggest fight is over how crop subsidies are calculated and which crops they go to, but there is also disagreement on cutting food stamps. The question isn’t whether food stamps will be cut, but by how much. Food stamps are an entitlement, which means the program grows according to need, and the only way for Congress to cut spending is to reduce the benefits each recipient gets, or to change the rules about who can qualify. Both the House and Senate bills contain a provision that would make certain ex-offenders ineligible for the program.

Louisiana Republican David Vitter introduced an amendment in the Senate that bars anyone who has been convicted of murder, sexual assault or sexual abuse, child pornography, and similar state offenses from receiving food stamps. The amendment applies retroactively, meaning it would kick poor senior citizens who have served their time in prison, and who may not have committed violent crimes in years, off assistance. The amendment also prohibits these ex-offenders from being counted as members of their families when benefits are determined, which means that mothers or grandmothers on food stamps who take ex-offenders in don’t get extra money to feed them. If that ex-offender has a job, however, his or her income is counted and reduces his family’s benefits accordingly. States can’t opt out of this provision. “The amendment essentially says that rehabilitation doesn’t matter and violates basic norms of criminal justice,” wrote Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities. The Vitter amendment passed by voice vote, which means how many and who voted for it wasn't recorded.

A similar amendment was introduced in the House, but it would only affect violent ex-offenders going forward, not people who have already been released. About one in six people currently in prison would be covered, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that researches and advocates for prison reform. There’s no way to know what percentage of them rely on food stamps once they’re out, but many ex-offenders are barred from public housing and heavily discriminated against in the job market. The amendments go after a politically powerless and unpopular population, which is probably why politicians are trying to score political points by introducing them.

Setting aside the question of whether it’s fair to paint all of these offenders with the same broad brush, or whether it’s right to continue to punish people after they have served their sentences, the move ignores a growing trend over the last ten years of working to reintegrate ex-offenders into society. One of the most important factors that determines whether newly released prisoners commit crimes once they’re out is the level of community support they get. People just out of prison need a job, a place to live, and food to eat. Last year, the Council of State Governments released a report that said states that instituted reintegration programs had reported lower recidivism rates when they compared the outcomes of inmates released in 2005 and 2007. In Michigan, the number of former prisoners who had reoffended within three years of release had dropped by 18 percent; in Kansas, it was 15 percent, and in five other states the drop was of more than 5 percent. The authors of the study expect even higher reductions in future years.

Even conservative lawmakers like Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey have supported more help for offenders once they’re released because it costs less than returning them to prison. Plus, ex-offenders’ ability to reintegrate into society is not just a question of what’s good for them; if they are less likely to commit more crimes once they leave prison, that’s good for public safety, too. On the federal level, the Second Chance Act, first passed in 2007, provides federal money to help ex-offenders with legal fees, educational and job training, and other help. “Efforts like the Vitter amendment run totally counter to those efforts, and are counterproductive to facilitating the re-entry process,” says Jeremy Haile of The Sentencing Project.

The Welfare-to-Work Act passed in 1996 barred former drug offenders from receiving welfare and food stamp benefits, and a Yale Medical School study found that those denied food assistance under that law were at greater risk of engaging in risky sexual behavior like prostitution to get money for food. (Unlike the Vitter amendment, states could opt out of this provision—ten kept it fully in place, and the rest either modified it or opted out completely.)

These amendments aren’t actually about punishing prisoners; they’re about a continued attack on food stamps. Last year, the number of Americans depending on food stamps—officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—averaged out to about 47 million a month. That number is more than double what it was before the recession, and the increase is largely driven by an increase in the number of people driven into poverty and unable to feed themselves or their families. Yet it's still only about three-fourths of the people who are eligible. Republican lawmakers have made reducing its $80 billion price-tag a goal. The House-passed bill would cut the program by a total of $40 billion over 5 years, knocking between 2 and 3 million people off the program. 

The provisions have brought a number of advocates for prison reform into the farm bill debate, but since similar language is in both the House and Senate bills scrapping it completely in conference is more difficult. Which means one of the most vulnerable populations may be among the first to lose assistance in the new farm bill.

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