Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cutting Food Benefits for the Formerly Incarcerated?

An amendment to a farm bill, currently debated in the senate, would permanently drop anyone ever convicted of a violent crime from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Colorlines reports:

According to Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. . . 

The amendment would bar from SNAP (food stamps), for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time — even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since. In addition, the amendment would mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members.

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. … Democrats accepted it without trying to modify it to address its most ill-considered aspects.

Two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, elderly or the disabled, and two-fifths of SNAP households live below half the poverty line.

Beyond the obvious implications for the income gap and the disproportionate harmful impact on the African American community, this provokes some thought about the way the financial crisis has yielded a new perception of the offender. Our focus on inmates prior to their crisis had been on their risk level, and the crisis has focused our attention on their cost. This is what has yielded some of the advances in geriatric and medical parole, but it has also led to some bitterness over the "free healthcare" that inmates receive. This seems to be a development of the same ilk. In an era of competition over resources, formerly incarcerated folks are seen as somehow less deserving of help and compassion than others, and thus their benefits, regardless of economic condition, are first to go.

This is why, even though humonetarianism has made some significant dents in the mass incarceration machine, it cannot be relied upon as an exclusive strategy for reform. We've seen enough developments of the tough-'n'-cheap variety to know that savings don't always work in the direction of penal reform. The way to frame the savings argument here would be as a  long-term concern: Poor people with nothing to eat have less opportunities and might therefore resort to crime, and one way to save is to reduce recidivism.

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