Richardson: The right to eat

There’s one group of people in this country who probably get less sympathy than anyone else: felons.

If you’re a convicted felon, very few Americans care about your plight. Can’t find a job or an apartment because of your record? Too bad, we tell them, you shouldn’t have committed a crime.

By Jill Richardson OtherWords columnist

By Jill Richardson
OtherWords columnist

In addition to being denied jobs or housing, convicted felons lose some or all of their voting rights in every state except Maine and Vermont. Twelve states continue to deny felons voting rights even after they’ve served prison sentences and completed parole.

Most states deny drug felons eligibility for food stamps, too.

In some states, like Arizona, Florida, and Texas, the ban is across the board. Elsewhere, including in Colorado, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, drug felons can regain this right if they complete alcohol or drug treatment.

This boggles my mind.

If somebody’s struggling so much that they resort to crime, should we really punish them by denying them food? They’re still human beings, no matter what they’ve done in their lives.

Maybe they’re dealing with an addiction or a mental health issue. As of 2009, about a third of felony arrests were for drug crimes.

Maybe they’re trying to function in society as upstanding citizens after their incarceration. Maybe they’re struggling to do so.

For former felons trying to lead an honest life — but poor enough to qualify for food stamps — wouldn’t food assistance make it that much easier to get by without breaking the law again?

Wouldn’t relieving them of the stress of affording food allow them to focus on other things — like staying away from drugs, or working through the problems that led them to commit a crime in the first place?

Food stamps aren’t a magic fix. You have to be desperately poor to qualify, and even then, Uncle Sam isn’t exactly a generous benefactor. But they help. They take away stress and meet a need for people that don’t live easy lives.

Society should do all it can to rehabilitate felons, rather than punishing them for the rest of their lives. No criminal record negates their right as human beings to eat.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It

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  • Tammy

    I start this by saying I do not in any way support a life of crime from anyone in anyway. I do however support trying to help someone who is trying to help themselves. I have a brother who was drug addicted, served a 5 year prison term and completed a 5 year probation in SC. Since coming out of prison, he has been unable to get a good paying job with any kind of benefits. All companies see is a drug charge and a prison term and that’s enough for them to say – no thank you to his application. Did he do wrong? Absolutely he did. Did he deserve to serve a prison sentence? Absolutely he did. I am in no way saying otherwise. What I am saying is that he DID the time for his crime and unfortunately society and the job force says that is not enough, He is not eligible to vote or receive any state assistance – he is a non human because of a drug charge and prison sentence. He has been unable to get back on his feet financially. He stayed clean and truly TRIED to be a better person. Society would not help him. Had it not been for family, he would have gone hungry and homeless. Today, he is suffering from deep depression because of his finances and his unabilty to get a good job to support his household and his family and have insurance for them. How does this help a person in any way? Please don’t misunderstand – if a person is not staying clean and at least TRYING to help themselves – then I don’t see where we should be handing them a free ride for anything. I do however wonder where is the support system for a person who truly tries to rehabilitate their lives.

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