A store in St. Louis, Missouri, indicates it accepts food stamp benefits. Credit: Paul Sableman via Flickr

Getting back on your feet after serving time in prison is not an easy thing to do. Even for those of us lucky enough to find support, hunger, homelessness and hopelessness are all too common barriers to rehabilitation and a real second chance.

Many people who serve time in prison are all but excluded from the job market once they are free. Often, low-wage jobs with irregular hours and no benefits are the only option. Having access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, can make all the difference for Americans working hard to reintegrate into society and restart their lives.

But some in Congress are trying to pull the rug out from under thousands of Americans who have already served their sentences for a violent crimes, even in cases where the crimes are decades in the past and the sentences are completed. Instead of the shortsighted version of the farm bill that passed the House, which would ban people embracing a second chance from ever participating in SNAP, our representatives need to work on bipartisan bills that support SNAP like the one that the Senate passed at the end of June.

I struggled as a young person to find the support that I needed to be successful. I was homeless and didn’t have anywhere to turn. The choices I felt forced to make changed my future. I served 15 years. When I got out, I completed a drug-treatment program that helped me get my life back on track. I went to college, and then to law school. I realized that I could use my experiences to help someone else. It was time to speak up and give back.

If I hadn’t had support when I needed it most, my story could have ended very differently.

America is a country of second chances. For many, SNAP benefits are a big part of that second chance. Food assistance helps keep those who have served their time out of poverty and homelessness. It helps them support their families and keep food on the table for their kids.

There are already restrictions in place to make sure that SNAP benefits don’t go to those who have violated parole or the terms of their release. But denying assistance to everyone who has been found guilty of a single violent crime, including those who have served their sentences and are working hard at healing themselves and their communities, goes too far and would leave many with nowhere to turn to put food on their tables.

This misguided policy wouldn’t just threaten the food security of individuals who were incarcerated. It would also threaten food security for their families. Low-income families and children would be at increased risk of food insecurity, all for helping a family member succeed with their rehabilitation and providing them shelter.

Instead of offering hope and supporting rehabilitation, a lifetime ban on SNAP benefits would undermine reintegration and hurt families. Nothing about this policy would improve public safety — it would just put more Americans, including children, at risk of going hungry.

This amendment would also perpetuate the racial injustice that continues in our prison system. African-Americans are incarcerated five times more often than white Americans. And low-income African-Americans would be hit the hardest by this ban. Elderly African-Americans convicted of even one crime decades ago would be at particularly high risk of food insecurity under this misguided policy.

That doesn’t align with what we believe justice should be in this country. Elected leaders on both sides of the aisle have been working for years to support those re-entering society to become productive and successful members of their communities.

Supports like SNAP are crucial to helping those who have served their sentences become self-sufficient and stay out of trouble. Helping feed Americans who are trying to get their lives back on track shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and evidence suggests that SNAP can help reduce crime by providing food to those who are struggling to meet their basic needs.

Instead of politically motivated attacks on crucial supports like SNAP, the House should support the Senate’s bipartisan version of the farm bill and all of Congress should be looking for ways to facilitate re-entry and rehabilitation so America can deliver on its promise of a second chance.

Desmond Meade is the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He wrote this for the Miami Herald.

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