How cutting food stamps undermines prison reform

How cutting food stamps undermines prison reform
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If only an anonymous member of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE’s team would publish an op-ed explaining how cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as proposed in the House-passed Farm Bill of June 2018, and intensifying work requirements for public benefits, as championed by the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, would hurt millions of Americans. Then our country’s most economically unprotected classes finally might become a policy priority in Washington.

These cuts would dim the future of those who are vulnerable to the reach of our criminal justice system. If we cut $20 billion from temporary public benefits such as SNAP — the food stamp program — we limit the survival options for a large number of American families and belie the administration’s purported objective of prison reform.

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Congress has failed to pass a Farm Bill by the Sept. 30 deadline, jeopardizing access to food for 42 million Americans. The Republican-backed bill threatens to leave at least 2 million SNAP enrollees with limited options for securing food as a result of increased work requirements and senseless restrictions on certain formerly incarcerated persons. This would upend the intended priorities of the First Step Act — GOP-proposed prison reform legislation on the congressional agenda.

Regarding so-called prison reform, the Senate proves slightly more visionary than the House. Senators voted to guard existing access to food and address America’s sentencing dilemma. With an eye toward real reform, amendments by Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyLawmakers from both sides of the aisle mourn Cummings GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate Farmers: New Trump ethanol proposal reneged on previous deal MORE (R-Iowa) promise to reform sentencing disparities by abridging certain drug-related “three strikes laws”; empowering judges to use more discretion against mandatory minimum practices; and making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, which closes the racialized sentencing gap between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Endorsed by President Trump, the First Step Act essentially would expand the boundary lines of the prison industrial complex through house arrest and electronic monitoring. Such monitoring equals money for states.

The United States expends more than $270 billion a year to rank first in the global incarceration race, with 2.3 million people in jails and prisons. According to the Brennan Center, at least 40 percent of the incarcerated population poses no risk to public safety and deserves alternatives to incarceration such as treatment or community service.

Mass incarceration reinscribes poverty by criminalizing and penalizing low-income communities, which the racial and class composition of our jails and prisons bears out. The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) finds that 57 percent of incarcerated men lived on less than $22,500 a year before imprisonment, and nearly three of four incarcerated women earned the same income before entering prison.

When drilling down to the intersection of race, gender, income and incarceration, one quickly discerns an insidious manifestation of the criminalization of poverty and certain races. Latinas, on average, represent the most economically depressed community, with a median pre-incarceration annual income of less than $12,000. PPI revealed the average income of black men is $17,625 ($4,350 less than their white counterparts), and black women’s pre-incarceration income hovered around $12,735 ($2,745 less than white women).

Alarmingly, 65 percent of families with incarcerated loved ones struggle to meet the bare necessities for survival: housing, food and health care. Incarceration results in one in 14 children living miles away from their parents. Five million children come to know emptier refrigerators, try to make sense of familial dislocation, and sustain the daily blows of diminishing household incomes. When parents do exit prison, they encounter limited access to employment, health care, housing and food assistance.

To change this, we must wage a nonviolent revolution for reparative justice and non-white sufficiency in a nation determined to create generations of criminals. We must demand:

  • Protection and expansion of public benefits such as Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP and Section 8;
  • The end of restrictions to federal benefits for formerly incarcerated persons;
  • The end of mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses;
  • Reassessment of the legal definition of a violent crime;
  • Re-enfranchisement of all incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons; and
  • Funding of GED and post-secondary education for incarcerated persons.

In addition, we should incentivize state legislatures to adopt sentencing reform.

We only exorcise the principalities of mass incarceration by guaranteeing certain public economic trusts such as food, housing, and health care, and by reforming our grossly punitive culture of mandatory minimums and racialized sentencing disparities. An enduringly moral vision for a free society hinges on our will to divert and decrease incarceration, not merely resourcing prisons with programs that allegedly reduce recidivism.

Willie D. Francois is senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, New Jersey,  president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, and a safety net communications fellow for the Center for Community Change. He is co-author of “Christian Minister’s Manual: For the Pulpit and the Public Square for All Denomination” (2017).