A farm bill amendment is supposedly aimed at curbing rampant welfare fraud and abuse, but advocacy groups see it as another setback for the recovering incarcerated population.
An amendment to the pending farm bill that would deny food stamps to convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles is receiving stiff opposition.
Sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), amendment 1056 would ban food assistance through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) for life for anyone ever convicted of certain offenses, also reducing benefits for the person's children and family members.
SNAP, which is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, has doubled in cost since 2008 because of the economic recession. In 2012, 46.6 million Americans participated in SNAP at a cost of $78.4 billion.
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Vitter, who is currently traveling, couldn't be reached immediately for comment, but his spokesperson Luke Bolar told MSN News that the amendment had been accepted by the Senate. Bolar said that final passage of the new five-year farm bill — which sets policies for farm subsidies and food stamps — could come this week.
Currently, there is a lifetime ban on food stamps for convicted drug felons only, although Bolar said that "many states have opted out of or modified that ban."
'WIDESPREAD FRAUD AND ABUSE'
The amendment "would establish a complete ban in the program for anyone who's committed a violent rape, a crime of pedophilia or murder, and there would be no opt-out for states," Vitter said when introducing the amendment.
Bolar said the driving force behind the amendment was an audit from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office on the federally funded Louisiana food stamp program from 2010-2012, which found that there were duplicates and overpayments of millions.
The results show that more than $1.1 million was issued to 1,761 people who were in prison, 322 people gained benefits even though their wages exceeded $50,000, and 3,060 people used $2 million worth of benefits in a state other than Louisiana, according to a press release from Vitter's office.
Advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP are criticizing the amendment, saying that it would impose even more hurdles for members of the incarcerated population who are already struggling to re-enter society.
"This hastily considered amendment is unjust, cruel and counterproductive," wrote research and advocacy group the Sentencing Project, which says that of those in prison, about one in six were convicted of offenses the amendment targets.
"Most of these individuals will one day be released," the project says. "Over time, the food stamp ban would be felt by well over a million people, with communities of color disproportionately affected. This loss of food assistance would be in addition to the felony drug ban already in effect."
OPPOSITION SPEAKS OUT
Nearly three dozen criminal justice and civil rights groups signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid arguing that the amendment would "impose a burden on thousands of seniors, children, and working families hardest hit by the nation’s economic downturn."
"Because it is retroactive, an elderly person who long ago completed his or her prison sentence could lose SNAP benefits under this amendment," the letter states. "A grandmother who decades ago was implicated in a violent crime could lose food stamps for her household … A family working to make ends meet upon a relative’s re-entry from prison could be denied a lifeline and plunged further into poverty."
The letter points out that those with criminal records already have to jump through thousands of federal, state and local hoops to gain employment, education, housing and public benefits.
Conservative website Breitbart.com applauded Vitter's amendment, writing: "Thank God we can all agree that taxpayers shouldn't be forced to feed murderers, rapists, and pedophiles."
Vitter also introduced an amendment to end the free government cell phone program for low-income subscribers, which has been referred to as "Obama phone."
"I think the entire program is an entitlement mentality gone wild ... that we have started the notion that folks are entitled to the government, the taxpayer, providing them almost everything under the sun," Vitter said while introducing the amendment, contending that it had also resulted in rampant waste and abuse.
That amendment has yet to receive a Senate vote.
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