Sex Offenders in the Farm Bill

Over the last two decades, a great deal of innovation in criminal justice has targeted sex offenders. Registration, community notification, residency restrictions, employment restrictions, post-imprisonment civil commitment, special license plates, marked driver’s licenses, and specific loitering laws are among the various collateral limits that have been discussed and implemented for sex offenders. Generally speaking, these restrictions are applied retrospectively but survive Ex Post Facto Clause challenges because the relevant laws are considered non-punitive.

Thanks to the wonderful Texas criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast, I found out that the farm bill just signed into law by President Obama includes a provision denying food stamps to certain sex offenders. The provision was inserted by Senator Vitter (who ironically might be a “sex offender” who wasn’t prosecuted for hiring prostitutes) and applies to child molesters and those who commit violent sexual assaults. Notably, there are already bans on drug offenders participating in the program because there is a fear that they might trade food stamps for drugs. For sex offenders, however, it is difficult to think of any non-punitive justification for denying food stamps to sex offenders convicted before enactment of the current law. Even though the courts have bent over backwards to find various restrictions on sex offenders constitutional, it is hard to fathom a theory that would allow the Vitter amendment to be constitutionally applied to those with pre-existing convictions for sex crimes.

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