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Senator Vitter Offers — and Senate Democrats Accept — Stunning Amendment With Racially Tinged Impacts

May 22, 2013 at 3:41 PM

In today's Senate debate on the farm bill, Senator David Vitter offered -- and Senate Democrats accepted -- an amendment that would increase hardship and will likely have strongly racially discriminatory effects.

The amendment would bar from SNAP (food stamps), for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time -- even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since. In addition, the amendment would mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members.

So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren's benefits would be cut.

Given incarceration patterns in the United States, the amendment would have a skewed racial impact. Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit.

The amendment essentially says that rehabilitation doesn't matter and violates basic norms of criminal justice.

It's also possible that the amendment could contribute to recidivism. Ex-offenders often have difficulty finding jobs that pay decent wages. The amendment could pose dilemmas for ex-offenders who are trying to go straight but can neither find jobs nor, as a result of the amendment, obtain enough food to feed their children and families.

Senator Vitter hawked his amendment as one to prevent murderers and rapists from getting food stamps. Democrats accepted it without trying to modify it to address its most ill-considered aspects.

The farm bill is still on the floor, and the amendment can still be modified. Senators should gather the courage to step up to the plate and address this matter forthwith.

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