THE BLOG
07/29/2013 10:38 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2013

The New Assault on Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

Every year, nearly 700,000 people walk out of prison and return to our communities. They seek jobs at our local businesses, relax in our public parks and stand in line with us at the supermarket. You would think we would do everything we could to help them transition into productive, law-abiding lives.

You would be wrong.

In fact, Congress is doing just the opposite. In recent weeks, Republicans have offered a series of mean-spirited amendments that would deny vital public benefits -- namely food and housing -- to individuals leaving prison. With near-unanimous consent, Democrats have quietly acquiesced in the adoption of these measures. And given how many spending bills remain to be taken up this fall, there may be more to come.

The desire to slash benefits for people convicted of crimes is nothing new, nor is it limited to one political party. In the early 1990s, Congress began to erect barriers and cut services for people struggling to reenter society. First, Pell grants were barred for incarcerated individuals, ensuring that most could not receive a college education prior to release. Then restrictions were enacted to deny people with drug convictions access to welfare benefits, public housing and financial aid for higher education.

But as public attitudes about the drug war began to change, some began to see that such restrictions were ineffective, if not unjust. Though Congress did not enact any substantial changes to its earlier restrictions, it did pass the Second Chance Act, which recognized that government has a responsibility to help prisoners return as contributing members of their communities. If that last statement sounds familiar, it's because President George W. Bush said it himself when he signed the Second Chance Act into law in 2008.

Lately, however, Republicans have been taking the compassion out of compassionate conservatism. Led by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, Republicans seem intent on placing formerly incarcerated individuals on the front line as a scapegoated population.

In May, Senator Vitter offered an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have denied food assistance through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, for life to anyone ever convicted of certain violent offenses. The measure, which was hastily accepted by Democrats, would have resulted in reduced SNAP benefits in households with people convicted of such offenses, affecting children as well as adults. Because it was retroactive, an elderly person who long ago completed his or her prison sentence could lose food assistance. A grandmother who decades ago was implicated in a violent crime could lose food stamps for her household. A family working to make ends meet upon a relative's reentry from prison could be denied a lifeline and plunged further into poverty.

A month later, the House adopted a similar amendment to its Farm Bill, which has thus far failed.

In July, Senator Vitter then offered an amendment to the transportation and housing spending bill that would deny federal housing assistance to individuals convicted of certain violent crimes -- a measure that could force the families of formerly incarcerated individuals out of their homes. The amendment was agreed to 99-1. Not a single Democrat spoke up against it.

About one in six of the 1.6 million people in state or federal prison has been convicted of an offense targeted by these amendments. Over time, these bans would apply to more than a million people. Disparities in the criminal justice system mean African-Americans and Latinos would be disproportionately affected.

But if policymakers are not moved by hungry children and unfair consequences for communities of color, they should at least be persuaded by this: Bans on public benefits for formerly incarcerated individuals are counterproductive.

When people are released from prison -- as the vast majority are -- they need a job and a place to live. But many employers won't hire someone who has been convicted of a crime, even if that person is well qualified for the job. Despite the popular belief that people should be free to rejoin the community after they have paid their debts, every state has a variety of rules that erect barriers to obtaining employment or licensing. When compounded with restrictions on food assistance, housing, education and voting, such consequences mean that many individuals are effectively denied the right to fully participate in American life. Following a time when a bipartisan consensus was forming around the need to support successful reentry strategies, such policies threaten to reverse many of the advances of the past decade.

The country was built on the belief that each human being has limitless potential and worth. Everybody matters. We believe that even those who have struggled with a dark past can find brighter days ahead. One way we act on that belief is by helping former prisoners who've paid for their crimes -- we help them build new lives as productive members of our society.

Does that last paragraph sound familiar? If so, it's because President Bush said it himself. Unfortunately, too many members of Congress seem intent on reversing one of his most morally praiseworthy legacies.