Kentucky should become a leader on criminal justice and re-entry after incarceration

Successful reintegration for people returning home after incarceration often depends on their community extending them a second chance.

President Donald Trump appears to agree because in April he committed “to providing support and resources that former inmates need to meet their responsibilities, rediscover their self‑worth, and benefit from the gift of a second chance.”

As a minister and advocate for returning citizens, I hope Kentuckians, including our leaders in Congress, will also embrace people with criminal records by supporting legislation to end federal bans on food stamps and financial assistance for people with felony drug convictions. In my work at Mission Behind Bars and Beyond we help people find the resources they need to survive those first months out of prison and mentor them.

Kentucky is among 30 states that ban people with drug felony convictions, either permanently or for a period of time, from eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) because of federal legislation passed in 1996 that significantly restricted access to the social safety net.

One of our clients, “Bryan,” was released from prison without any assets, and because of his substance use disorder and related convictions it meant public housing, access to basic food through food stamps and other benefits were unavailable to him. Government policies intentionally created these obstacles for Bryan and put all of us at risk because they increase the likelihood of recidivism. Indeed, research has found that recidivism rates decline up to 10 percent one year after release when cash assistance and food stamps are immediately available to people returning home.

Thankfully Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has sought to modify these crippling bans in legislation he has cosponsored with Senator Cory Booker. As they prepare to reintroduce the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2019, or REDEEM Act, I urge them to follow the lead of House lawmakers who have updated the legislation.

Instead of just modifying the lifetime bans on food stamps and financial assistance, freeing some people who meet specific qualifications to receive the benefits, the bill should entirely eliminate it. So many Kentuckians now incarcerated and eventually released (up to 95% of those in prisons and jails will be returning to our communities) fall under the trap of this prohibition.

Fortunately, for Bryan our program was there to help him. But why should we make it so hard for others who have paid their dues and now need a second chance? Ninety-one percent of people transitioning from incarceration report experiencing food insecurity, according to the National Institute of Health. Employment opportunities for people returning from prison are also limited because of poor skills or training, health challenges and employer bias.

These obstacles to reentry also harm their families who are disproportionately poor. If someone just released from prison cannot contribute financially to their household they become a burden and further reduce the financial status of everyone in the home. More mouths to feed with fewer resources. There is a growing bipartisan consensus in Kentucky supporting criminal justice reform that recognizes the need to support people reentering our communities with educational and employment services, drug treatment, housing assistance and financial and nutritional support.

States that have rejected the tough on crime approach to welfare reform have improved public safety outcomes. Let’s spread the success because not everyone is as fortunate as Bryan, now a college graduate, to find a caring mentoring program like Mission Behind Bars and Beyond. Let’s not make reentry more difficult than it needs to be.

Rev. Dean Bucalos is executive director of Mission Behind Bars and Beyond, a faith-based mentoring program assisting returning citizens.