The New York Times recently published an editorial piece in their Sunday Review entitled “Unfair Punishments: Denying ex-offenders food stamps and welfare encourages dangerous behavior like prostitution” (Sunday, March 17, 2013). The editorial discussed the link between restricting food stamps and welfare from felons and their engaging in high-risk behaviors like prostitution in an attempt to feed themselves and their families. Since this is such an absurd proposition — one that should offend every decent American — more should be said on the subject.
According to the editorial, in 1996 Congress decreed that “people convicted of drug felonies would henceforth be banned for life from receiving food stamps or cash assistance unless they lived in a state that expressly opted out of the ban.” It points out that most states “have either opted out of the bans or softened them in some way,” but that roughly a dozen states have adopted the ban without any sort of modification. And other states, which did not accept the total ban, “have preserved obstacles to cash assistance and food stamps, with unfortunate consequences.”
The “unfortunate consequences” talked about in The New York Times editorial are the fact that ex-prisoners — and their families, and, of course, their children — are literally being starved due to not being eligible for food stamps or other forms of need-based assistance. At a time when these people “need all the help they can get feeding and clothing their families and themselves,” they are being deliberately restricted from the life-saving and life-sustaining assistance that they require. We are setting them up for failure ensuring that they will become yet a larger burden on taxpayers.
The concept of restricting food from fellow Americans, regardless of their actions, is an ugly one. Let’s get something straight from the start: we live in America. And in America, we don’t deliberately starve our citizenry. We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This includes food for ourselves, our families, and our children. This is a basic human need and it is plainly disrespectful to those ideals to withhold it because someone was convicted of a drug crime.
I think that we can all agree that many people engage in poor decision-making and that utilizing illegal drugs is one of these bad decisions. But simply because someone uses illegal drugs doesn’t mean that they should have to starve to death. And punishing their children and families because of their past decisions is just plain wrong. No real American would be able to refute this with a good conscience.
The real question should be, what can we do to help these former drug offenders not use illegal substances anymore? This is the question we should be looking into, not at how we can punish them for using drugs in the first place.
The answer is simple. Rehabilitation and support. When someone has an anxiety disorder, we don’t punish them by withholding their food until they are no longer anxious. This is not a treatment strategy. It is an affront to human dignity and good sense. Instead, we bring them into treatment, have them talk about the issues with an informed advisor, and help them live their life to the best of their abilities; the whole time managing issues as they present themselves. The same should be true of drug offenders.
When someone is convicted of a drug-related crime, they should be presented with the opportunity to go into treatment. And after completion of treatment, they should be offered counseling and other after-care support services. These should include not only treatment focused on substance abuse, but also job skills, life skills, and effective techniques for dealing with all sorts of triggers.
Much of the time we — the American public — lose the context of the collateral consequences of our criminal justice system. We think, “He broke the law and went to prison,” or, “She violated the rules and is now being punished.” But the punishment should fit the crime, and it shouldn’t affect innocent parties who depend upon the wrongdoer. Judges can’t sentence a criminal defendant to be hungry for life or to starving the wrongdoer’s children. But this is what is happening with this offensive and draconian idea of withholding need-based support from the needy. We are subjugating America’s most in-need populations in the name of what is “good” and “right.” It is neither. And all the while we are becoming the perpetrator of a crime ourselves in the process, forcing another person to go hungry.
As the editorial states, people getting out of prison need all the support they can obtain so that they don’t choose — or are forced to — go back into the criminal culture to support themselves. By withholding food and other vital resources from ex-prisoners, we sentence them to a life of crime; a life where they can’t obtain the food, shelter, and employment that they need to succeed. We feed, clothe, and house our prisoners. But we buck at the idea of doing the same with ex-prisoners and their innocent children. What we should be doing is supporting them, helping them get back on their feet, and helping to stop the generational cycle of crime. Instead, with policies such as the ones currently in place, we are sentencing ex-offenders to a life in the gutter; hungry and crying out for help.
The idea of withholding food from another human being should be offensive to every American.