Executive Summary: Re-Entry Obstacles Ex-offenders Face
The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, but nearly one quarter of its prisoners. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the U.S., totaling 6.8 million people, one of every 35 adults. We are far and away the world leader in putting our own people in jail. Most of the people inside are poor and Black. It is not just about crime. Police discriminate, police traffic stops also racially target people in cars.
Once stopped, Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to be searched. Traffic tickets are big business, the consequences of traffic tickets are much more severe among poor people, the War on Drugs target Black people, the bail system penalizes poor people, these just name a few of the reasons behind mass incarceration. In schools, African American kids are much more likely to be referred to the police than other kids. Though Black people make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, Black children are 28 percent of juvenile arrests, (DOJ).
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In just under 20 years, the US prison demographic shifted from 2/3 White to over 2/3 nonwhite. African-Americans, who have historically comprised just over 12 percent of the US population, now represent nearly half of all persons held under lock and key. Blacks and Latinos represent disproportionately large shares of the prison.
Mass incarceration contributes significantly to the American poverty rate. All political parties, leaders and law enforcement now agree that the county must reduce its prison population. They also agree that it can be done without risking public safety. Over the last ten years 27 states have already begun to cut prison time.
It is very necessary to change state and local laws, due to the fact that 87 percent of inmates are housed in state facilities, however it is known that Washington makes decisions that affect the entire criminal justice system both positively and negatively.
With the absence of a robust national movement, the bold reforms needed at both state and local levels will not materialize. Federal funding pushes state policy and aided in our current crisis of mass incarceration. The federal government also sets the tone for the nation, this is critical to growing public support and the national push for change.
Chattel slavery is when an enslaved person is owned forever and whose children and children’s children are automatically enslaved. They were treated as property instead of individuals. They were counted as three-fifths of a person. During the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention the three-fifths compromise, was reached and enacted among state delegates. It was important if and how slaves would be counted when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation and taxing purposes was important. It was important because the number would be used to determine the number of seats that the state would have in the U.S. House or Representatives for the next ten years.
The purpose of this compromise was to give the southern states a third more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes than if the slaves had not been counted, but it was fewer than if slaves and free people would have been counted as equal this is why they were counted as three-fifths of a person. This ultimately allowed the slave holder interests to dominate the government of the United States until 1861.
The Civil War took place from 1861-1865, between the Northern and the Southern states. The Southern States wanted to protect their institution of slavery, meanwhile the northern states wanted to end slavery due to the economy. Slavery ended in 1865, after the Civil War.
Most states only admit very poor families onto the benefit rolls. In July 2012, the majority of states (28 states and the District of Columbia) required that a single mother caring for two children earn less than $795 per month to gain entry to the benefit rolls—an earnings level representing about half of 2012 poverty-level income. States often permit families with a working member who obtains a job while on the rolls to remain eligible for TANF at higher earnings levels, though in many states such eligibility is retained for a limited period of time. States also usually require that a family has assets below a specified amount in order to qualify for benefits.
In July 2012, 27 states and the District of Columbia required applicant families to have $2,000 or less in assets to gain entry to the benefit rolls. In most states, the value of at least one of the family’s cars is not counted toward the state’s asset limit. In July 2012, the state with the lowest maximum benefit paid to a family consisting of a single parent and two children was Mississippi, with a benefit of $170 per month (11% of poverty-level income). Among the contiguous 48 states and the District of Columbia, the highest maximum benefit was paid in New York: $770 per month for a single parent of two children in New York City (48% of poverty-level income).
The benefit for such a family in the median state (North Dakota, whose maximum benefit ranked 26th among the 50 states and District of Columbia), was $427, a benefit amount that represented 27% of monthly poverty-level income in 2012. TANF maximum benefits vary greatly by state; there is also a very apparent regional pattern to benefit amounts. States in the South tend to have the lowest benefit payments; states in the Northeast have the highest benefits.
Though the 1996 welfare reform law that created TANF revamped many of the rules for cash assistance for needy families, states determined income eligibility rules and maximum benefit amounts even before enactment of the law. There were large variations among the states in benefit amounts before the 1996 welfare law. The regional pattern to benefit amounts—with relatively low benefits in the South—also existed under pre-TANF law.
Additionally, cash assistance benefit amounts for needy families are not automatically adjusted for inflation by the states, and have lost considerable value in terms of their purchasing power over time. From 1981 to 2012, the inflation-adjusted value of cash assistance benefits for needy families in the median state declined by 44%. Some of this decline occurred before the 1996 welfare law: between 1981 and 1996 the value of cash assistance benefits had already declined by 28%. Food assistance benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps) offset some of this decline. However, from 1981 to 2012 the value of the combined cash and food assistance benefit for a family of three in the median state declined by 18% in inflation-adjusted terms.
A key feature of the 1996 overhaul of the nation’s cash assistance system was turning funding over to the states and giving them broad flexibility on using the funds through the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. Prior to the TANF block grant, families in need received cash assistance through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, under which federal funds matched half or more of every dollar of cash assistance that a state provided to a needy family.
A key argument for block granting was that states needed much greater flexibility over the use of the federal funds than AFDC’s funding structure provided. Under a block grant, proponents argued, states could shift the funds freed up when families left welfare for work to child care or other work supports, where need would increase. States also could invest more in work programs to reflect the increased emphasis on welfare as temporary and work-focused.
That is not what happened. In TANF’s early years, when the economy was strong and cash assistance caseloads were shrinking, states used the flexibility of the block grant to take some of the funds that had gone as benefits to families and redirect them to child care and welfare-to-work programs to further welfare reform efforts. But over time, states redirected a substantial portion of their state and federal TANF funds to other purposes, to fill state budget holes, and in some cases to substitute for existing state spending. Even when need increased during the Great Recession, states were often unable to bring the funds back to core welfare reform services and instead made cuts in basic assistance, child care, and work programs.
Thus, the cash assistance safety net for the nation’s poorest families with children has weakened significantly under the TANF block grant, with potentially devastating long-term consequences for children growing up in families with little or no cash income to meet basic needs. And, despite the rhetoric, few of the diverted resources have gone to work preparation or employment for the families.
Disqualifying felony drug offenders from TANF and SNAP eligibility presents three primary issues that can be solved by lifting the ban. First, the current policy blurs the limits of punishment by rendering social assistance programs a tool of the penal system. It expands the length of punishment beyond the end of sentence time and extends the scope of punishment to other members of the household. Consequently, otherwise eligible individuals are routinely denied vital food and economic assistance.6 Between 55 and 63 percent of prisoners have at least one dependent child.
Second, restricting felony drug offenders’ access to social assistance programs creates unnecessary barriers to reintegration and rehabilitation, increasing the likelihood of drug relapse and recidivism. According to the New York State Bar Association, the restrictions under PRWORA may be the greatest barrier to re-entry that felony drug offenders face. Since the purpose of TANF and SNAP is to support individuals in their efforts to become more productive members of society, lifting the lifetime ban for felony drug offenders would ensure more successful post-incarceration transitions for these individuals, who may lack steady income. No other class of felony offenders is denied access to these social assistance programs.
Third, the current policy is not cost-effective. Incarceration and social service administrative costs vary among states; however, the former is consistently more expensive. Promoting drug- and crime-free behavior through social assistance programs costs significantly less than re-incarceration. In California, the expenses associated with re-incarcerating one individual are comparable to those of administering EBT cards to 163 households.
The federal government needs to find ways to assist those felons who are released and are re-entering society. It’s unfair to release people with no direction or assistance. This increasingly leads to recidivism.
Congress should replace the current law that bans drug felons from accessing TANF and SNAP benefits with one that does exactly the opposite. These individuals are released and given a second chance at life, but have no assistance in starting to work toward that second chance. The federal requirements for the states should affirm the right of equal access to social services for drug felons and all felons if they meet every other qualification for social assistance.