Those returning from prison are part of the American family too

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Currently, there are anywhere between 70 to 100 million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States — A disproportionate share of whom are Black and brown. That’s an enormous figure for a country of only about 330 million. We have criminalized nearly a third of our population.

Their experiences are all different. This isn’t just because they are different people with different circumstances. It has more to do with each jurisdiction offering different services. Each state and county makes its own decisions about funding to support people reentering society.

Not everyone starting their life again has family or savings waiting for them. Some people leaving incarceration receive as little as taxi fare and money for a meal or two. Others have the benefit of financial backing from their families. Most rely on halfway houses that provide services but they all vary as they are privately run. It looks different for each person. In truth, the only guarantee is each individual is in a vulnerable position.

Many obstacles await those just freed. In more than 30 states, a drug felony conviction makes you completely or partially ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Some states have modified the ban to lift one or the other. Some have created carve outs or time-limit on certain bans. Either way, these are basic, critical anti-poverty programs that help prevent people and their families from falling into poverty or going hungry.

The 1996 welfare reforms created these bans, put in place partly in response to the deep prejudices that existed against drug use and users. But TANF doesn’t just provide cash assistance — it also provides childcare, education, and job training services. SNAP helps people afford food. Who can argue with that?

Today, we’ve begun to move away from the prejudices that trap formerly incarcerated people in poverty. We finally understand that drug use and abuse is a public health matter which needs to be met with care and appropriate resources. Now is the time that we stop treating those with drug felonies with cruelty and malice.

Incarceration is traumatic enough. People are taken away from their jobs, their families, and their communities. While many made mistakes and bad choices, their punishments often continue well beyond the period of incarceration. Formerly incarcerated people are ostracized from society.

Down to the language we use, (felons, criminals, convicts, or ex-cons) stripping them of their humanity and defining them by their lowest point, we never allow them to move past their conviction or rehabilitate their names. Returning citizens are a part of the fabric of our nation and each and every community. We can and should all be invested in their success. To do any less risks re-incarceration, often costing upwards of $30,000 a year.

The FIRST STEP Act, passed in December 2018 by a vote of 87-12, garnered the support of Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as well as Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Gauging past support for justice reform along those lines, we see a bipartisan opportunity to correct this cruel wrong of denying returning citizens with a drug felony access to basic SNAP and TANF services. We should be making it easier to return to society as a productive member, not harder through perpetual punishment.

As we envision and work towards the world we seek, we must remember the hardships of those reentering society. The president can do this in his American Family Plan. Including a lifting of the bans signals to Congress that it is a priority and will survive reconciliation. These bills only need 51 votes to pass the Senate.

We need the president to prioritize the formerly incarcerated by lifting the felony bans on SNAP and TANF in his American Family Plan.

José Santos Woss is the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s Legislative Manager for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. He leads work on criminal justice reform, election integrity, and policing. Additionally, he helps to lead the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 40 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.

Tags Chuck Grassley Cory Booker FIRST STEP Act Mike Lee Richard Durbin Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

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