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In America, we punish people for being poor. But we’re also one of the few democracies that punishes people 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.
The Sentencing Project found that the legislation subjects an estimated 180,000 women in the 12 most impacted states to a lifetime ban on welfare benefits. Given racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, banning benefits based on a prior drug conviction has brutally unfair consequences for people of color. For example, African-Americans 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. A study by researchers at Yale Medical School found that denying food assistance to women with felony drug convictions compromises public safety.
The felony drug ban is just one of many collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated individuals face as they strive to re-enter society. Continuing to punish people after they have been punished is not only vindictive but also counterproductive to building safe and healthy communities.
The REDEEM Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), would lift the ban on benefits for some people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses and allow the sealing of criminal records. Learn more about the REDEEM Act today.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.