In America, we punish people for being poor. From predatory lending, to the criminalization of homelessness, to modern day debtors’ prisons, we make life expensive for individuals and families who are already struggling to make ends meet.
But we don’t just punish people for being poor. In some cases, we punish them for being punished.
Consider the felony drug ban, which imposes a lifetime restriction on welfare and food stamp benefits for anyone convicted of a state or federal drug felony. Passed in the “tough on crime” era of the mid-1990s, the ban denies basic assistance to people who may have sold a small amount of marijuana years or even decades ago and have been law-abiding citizens ever since.
Because the felony drug ban was adopted with little debate, it’s hard to know exactly what Congress intended. But we can measure the law’s effect. Last year, The Sentencing Project found that the legislation subjects an estimated 180,000 women in the twelve most impacted states to a lifetime ban on welfare benefits.
Given racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system — particularly related to the war on drugs — banning benefits based on a prior drug conviction has brutally unfair consequences for people of color. About 60% of people in America’s prisons are racial and ethnic minorities. Of those individuals serving time for drug offenses, about two-thirds are black or Latino. Further, blacks are three to four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than whites, even though they use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates.
People who cannot meet basic needs may be more likely to turn to dangerous activities. A study by researchers at Yale Medical School found that women who are denied food assistance due to a drug conviction are at greater risk of hunger. These women are also more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior such as prostitution in order to get money for food.
The felony drug ban is just one of many collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated individuals face as they strive to reenter society. Some of these barriers are informal: an employer who will not hire a person with a criminal record; a university application that requires all applicants to “check the box” for a prior arrest or conviction.
But private sector discrimination has been compounded by laws that erect barriers and cut services for people sent to prison. In the 1990s, Congress barred Pell grants for incarcerated individuals — ensuring that most could not receive a college education prior to release — and restricted access to public housing and financial aid for higher education for some former prisoners.
Felony disenfranchisement laws – which date to colonial times but were tailored in the post-Reconstruction era to exclude black voters – place voting restrictions on an estimated 5.85 million Americans. In the upcoming elections, more than one in five black adults will be denied the right to vote in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia due to a criminal conviction.
Fortunately, as public attitudes about mass incarceration have changed, there is a growing recognition that fair sentencing can meet the mutual goals of punishment and rehabilitation. Imposing collateral consequences after a criminal conviction is not only vindictive but also counterproductive to building safe and healthy communities.
In recent months, federal lawmakers in both parties have introduced legislation to remove some of these barriers and promote a safer transition into society. The REDEEM Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), would allow the sealing of criminal records and lift the ban on benefits for some people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Though the bill should go much further — for example, by also lifting restrictions on housing and education benefits — it is a good first step toward restoring access to assistance for individuals who urgently need it.
Former President Bill Clinton — who signed the felony drug ban into law — recently told a group of mayors and law enforcement officials that some measures intended to address crime have been misguided and others have gone too far. Clinton predicted that criminal justice reform would be debated in the 2016 presidential race. If so, it will represent a major shift in our politics, which have too often focused on getting tough on crime rather than on promoting healthy communities. But for millions of people who are still being punished long after completing their sentences, 2016 is too long to wait.
It is an injustice to punish people for being poor. It is doubly unjust to punish them after they have already been punished.