In a new book, Yale Law professor James Forman, calls us to redefine our core values by asking, “What if we strove for compassion, for mercy, for forgiveness? And what if we did this for everybody, including people who have harmed others?”
In a new book, Yale Law professor James Forman, calls us to redefine our core values by asking, “What if we strove for compassion, for mercy, for forgiveness? And what if we did this for everybody, including people who have harmed others?” Quakers believe that God dwells in each human soul. Each person has the right to live a life of dignity with access to basic necessities.
Second chances are vital, and our criminal justice system fails to afford every individual who has committed a crime the ability to pay their debt to society and then become a productive member of that society. Formerly incarcerated people with gifts and high ambitions discover that the physical barriers that confined them in prison have been replaced by subtle, but devastating barriers.
Collateral Consequences of Felony Convictions
Specifically, federal law mandates that individuals with a felony drug conviction are subject to restrictions, called collateral consequences or collateral bans, from receiving food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Pell Grants that create barriers to higher education for returning citizens. The ban on SNAP and TANF benefits (funded by the federal government and administered by the states) for returning citizens convicted of a drug felony was part of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
The denial of SNAP and TANF benefits to people with drug convictions exacerbates food insecurity, creates barriers to employment. Some states lifted one or both of these bans, but not all have done so and collateral bans are still on the books at the federal level. These barriers to allowing people, largely people from communities of color, the ability to provide for themselves and their families feeds the vicious cycle of poverty and mass incarceration.
The Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian ministry serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families has declared April Second Chance Month. We should reflect on what it means to have a second chance.
The importance of giving second chances is something that Congress has taken into consideration.
Senator Rob Portman introduced and passed a resolution to declare April as Second Chance month. During the last Congress (the 114th Congress), Mr. Portman as well as Rep. Sensenbrenner also introduced the Second Chance Reauthorization Act to reauthorize funding to state-based partners and faith organizations administering reentry services to people leaving prison.
Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker reintroduced the REDEEM Act S.827. The REDEEM Act would create a process by which juveniles can have their criminal records expunged to give them a second chance at employment and public housing. S.827 would also lift the lifetime SNAP and TANF bans on non-violent drug offenders opening up access to vital anti-poverty programs, and giving returning citizens a second chance at reintegrating as productive members of society.
Why Should Congress Act?
In lifting these collateral bans Congress can provide a second chance to those who have paid their debt to society. This will not only yield opportunity, but also lower costs substantially over time through reduced recidivism. Congress can help end the vicious cycle of poverty and crime, reduce recidivism, and improve public safety while improving the well-being of our communities. Every American today shoulders the burden of the $80 billion a year carceral state. Lifting collateral bans is not only a question of cost, but of dignity. By allowing returning citizens to be lifted out of poverty they can reenter the workforce and provide for their families.
Quakers seek a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled. Congress should lift the collateral bans on TANF, SNAP, and Pell Grants currently in federal law.