02/04/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2014

How Senator Vitter Lost His Food Fight

Last spring, Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana proposed an amendment to the farm bill so sure of passage you might call it the Big Easy.

Senator Vitter's amendment would have banned food stamps for life for people with certain violent convictions. The measure was retroactive, meaning it would have denied nutrition assistance to an elderly person who long ago completed his or her sentence. It would have affected children and others in the household as well.

The purpose of the Vitter amendment was apparently to take a mean-spirited swipe at an unpopular constituency while putting opponents on the defensive. And at first it seemed to work: the measure sailed through Congress with little debate.

But a funny thing happened on the way to enactment. As lawmakers negotiated the farm bill, finally approved this week, the Vitter amendment was quietly neutralized. This happened not because high-powered lobbyists demanded it, but because leaders of both parties recognized the Vitter amendment for what it was: terrible policy.

For lawmakers accustomed to targeting formerly incarcerated individuals with impunity, this reversal must have come as a surprise. Not long ago, Congress routinely singled out ex-offenders for cuts in government services. During the 1990s -- the first wave of "welfare reform" -- Congress passed legislation to ban Pell grants for people seeking higher education in prison, and then to deny drug offenders access to public housing, aid for higher education and welfare benefits. The latter ban alone imposed a lifetime restriction on 180,000 women in 12 states.

Some tried to justify these restrictions as necessary to deter crime or reduce fraud. But if the threat of prison does not keep people from offending, it's hard to see how a ban on assistance following incarceration has a deterrent effect. Welfare bans are a blunt instrument for reducing fraud, which is rare and is already punishable under federal law.

And while the policy rationale for such welfare bans is weak, the harm caused by them is abundantly clear. Returning prisoners invariably need a job and a place to live. But employers hesitate to hire them. Landlords turn down their applications. Denying basic government services to such individuals only makes the transition harder.

When people are unable to meet basic needs, they sometimes turn to dangerous activities. A study by researchers at Yale Medical School found that women denied food assistance because of a drug conviction are at greater risk of hunger and of engaging in risky sexual behavior such as prostitution in order to get money for food.

Moreover, given racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, banning benefits based on a prior conviction has brutally unfair consequences for communities of color. African Americans are incarcerated at about six times the rate of whites. Racial and ethnic minorities make up 60 percent of the people in America's prisons. Welfare bans based on a criminal conviction increasingly feel like de facto bans on assistance for people of color.

The good news is that in the past decade, Congress has finally awakened to these realities. With the nation's prison population now at 2.2 million, Republicans and Democrats alike have begun questioning policies that send more and more people to prison while making it harder for them to return to their communities.

The Second Chance Act -- signed into law by President Bush in 2008 -- actually takes proactive steps by providing job training, drug treatment and other services for people leaving prison. The spending deal struck in January creates a blue ribbon task force to examine rehabilitation and employment programs to help reduce recidivism. The Vitter amendment was rejected because it was directly counter to these efforts.

But despite these successes, there is always a danger of backsliding. In this time of ongoing austerity -- which some have called "Welfare Reform 2.0" -- there may be further efforts to target formerly incarcerated individuals as a pretext for cutting important services. As we saw with the Vitter amendment, such proposals can pop up quickly and be adopted with little resistance.

As debate moves forward, it's encouraging that lawmakers have increasingly come to recognize the value of research evidence in designing policy related to the cycle of incarceration. What's needed, though, is a strategy to challenge the knee-jerk political response of being "tough on crime." The bipartisan rejection of the Vitter amendment is a move in the right direction.