Every five years, the United States Congress approves a new Farm Bill that regulates the country’s vast agricultural, conservation, and food assistance programs – the latter of which serves millions of people. Given the wide-ranging scope of this Bill, negotiations around its passage often include debates on issues that particularly and uniquely affect formerly incarcerated people and low-income communities.
In early 2018, the US House of Representatives and US Senate approved significantly different versions of the Farm Bill. The House Version – H.R. 2 – included harsh and harmful changes to food assistance programs that would have had a disastrous impact on formerly incarcerated people and their families. Specifically, H.R. 2 included provisions that would have: led to drastic reductions in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps) benefits; expanded work requirements for people relying on SNAP assistance, making it harder for people with criminal records to qualify for SNAP; and instituted a lifetime ban on receiving SNAP for people with certain convictions.
The Senate version – S. 3042 – strengthened food assistance programs and included additional funding to provide employment and training programs for formerly incarcerated individuals. However, the Senate version was flawed in its own way: it contained a provision that would prohibit people with controlled substance felony convictions from certain types of employment in the quickly growing hemp industry. This stipulation would have a disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx communities due to disparities in drug sentencing.
Additionally, both versions of the bill would continue to allow funds allocated through the USDA Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program (CFDLGP) to be used for jail construction in rural communities. Rural people and communities, especially in economically depressed towns, deserve meaningful investments toward education, technology, infrastructure and sustainable economic development and job creation – not jails and prisons. This recently uncovered misuse of funds is a direct consequence of how the Farm Bill has had and continues to have far reaching impacts on the country’s criminal legal system.
Current Bill and JustLeadershipUSA’s Position
The version of the Bill emerging from the Conference Committee tasked with reconciling differences between the House and Senate bills presents a step in the right direction. The Conference Committee Report (the report is the reconciled version of both bills) excludes the House bill’s lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for people with certain convictions, and also excludes the harmful changes to work requirements. However, the Conference Committee Report still includes prohibitions on hemp industry employment for people with certain drug-related convictions, and it still allows for CFDLGP funds to be used for jail construction. While JustLeadershipUSA is glad that some harmful provisions have been eliminated, we urge Congress to recognize the harm these remaining negative provisions will cause and remove them before final passage. We firmly believe these changes are necessary to address the disproportionate, harmful impact this Bill could still have on formerly incarcerated people.
There are two key amendments that Congress must incorporate into the 2018 Farm Bill before it is sent to the President for his signature.
- Eliminate the hemp industry employment ban. The hemp industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, and more states are legalizing marijuana each year. The convictions that would categorically exclude people from working in this industry are disproportionately levied on Black and brown people as a result of the historically discriminatory sentencing disparities in the application of federal and state drug laws. This prohibition entrenches and exacerbates the racialized harm that is rampant in the criminal legal system, discriminatorily impedes economic opportunity for certain people and their families, and undermines the economic stability of communities that would benefit from employment made possible through the hemp industry’s growth. It should also be noted that removing this ban is actually supported by hemp producers as they recognize the positive impact that removing this ban would have on the industry at large. This ban must be eliminated from the final Farm Bill.
- Introduce an explicit ban on the use of CFDLGP funds for jail construction. Over the past two decades, over $350 million in funds made available through the USDA’s Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program have been used to build jails. This rampant and abhorrent abuse of a program designed to help rural communities has only fueled the increase in jail populations in those communities. In fact, the fastest growing jail populations are no longer in cities, but rather in rural communities. The USDA has been a direct enabler of the racialized, long-lasting harm that jails create. An explicit restriction on the use of these USDA funds is necessary to ensure that they are never again used for jail construction in any jurisdiction.
What You Can Do
We urge you to call your US Senator and Representative, and tell them to urge the Conference Committee leaders – Senator Pat Roberts (KS), Senator Debbie Stabenow (MI), Representative Mike Conaway (TX) and Representative Colin Petersen (MN) – to make these changes before considering final passage of the bill. While JustLeadershipUSA recognizes the importance of passing this Bill, given its outsized impact on a large segment of the US economy, we also know that this is a crucial opportunity to ensure that this Bill is not a vehicle for further harms that are a direct consequence of the criminal legal system’s systemic, wealth-based and racialized oppression of communities across this country.
If this Bill does pass without these amendments, it will be years before we are able to mitigate or reverse the damage this Bill will cause. Moreover, this Bill’s becoming law would create a dangerous precedent, as Congress would be further empowered to include, in other legislation, provisions that will disproportionately harm and exclude formerly incarcerated people and their families struggling to make ends meet, and especially Black and brown people across the country. In addition, Congress must address economic development in rural areas to support people of all backgrounds who struggle with a dearth of jobs and infrastructure.
You can learn who your Congresspeople are and get their contact information from www.govtrack.us/congress/member.