The amendment could pass the Senate as soon as this week.
If it becomes law, not only convicted criminals, but the children and other family members who depend on them will be affected -- by one estimate, as many as 500,000 low-income households will have $90 less a month to spend on food.
It will make no difference if the crime was committed long ago; or if it was committed when the person was a child; or if the ex-offender has lived a law-abiding life ever since; or that he has already spent time behind bars and paid his debt to society.
Calling the amendment "cruel and unjust," nearly three dozen criminal justice and civil rights groups, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, stating that it will "impose a burden on thousands of seniors, children, and working families hardest hit by the nation’s economic downturn."
International human rights law requires reformation and social rehabilitation to be the essential aims of a penitentiary system. Ex-offenders have a hard enough time re-entering society, facing barriers to employment, education, and housing at every turn. The amendment would add yet another one.
Vitter's amendment is even worse than it appears. While it claims to target violent felons, particularly “murderers, rapists, and pedophiles,” it actually permanently denies food stamps to a family man who as a teenager may have had sexual relations with his 15 year old girlfriend. The bill would establish a lifetime bar to food stamps to a person convicted of groping.
That’s because the bill covers any person convicted of “a federal or state offense involving sexual assault." This includes any nonconsensual sexual act prohibited by state or federal law, which could include misdemeanors. The crimes listed in the amendment also include failing to report child abuse or using a misleading Internet domain name to deceive a person into viewing obscenity.
This is not the first time Washington has tried to use its anti-hunger programs to dictate criminal justice policy to the states. In 1996, Congress passed a law denying food stamps to people with certain drug-related convictions, including possession. States were allowed to opt out of this requirement; 40 out of 50 did, either partially or fully.
Not surprisingly, the Vitter amendment explicitly recognizes the unpopularity with states of the drug conviction food stamp ban -- by not allowing any state to opt-out at all.
According to the congressional declaration of policy on the food stamp program, its purpose is “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s population by raising levels of nutrition among low-income households” – not to punish offenders and their children and spouses as they try to re-establish their lives.
Congress should do well to listen to itself, and strip the Vitter amendment from the Farm Bill.
Ginatta is Advocacy Director for the US Program of Human Rights Watch.