Over the years, government aid programs have banned certain convicted criminals from receiving taxpayer assistance. Convicted drug felons have been prevented from receiving food stamps for nearly 20 years. (Some states have opted out of the restriction; Texas has not.) Same with felons on the lam. And some federal housing programs limit where sex offenders can live.
Agree with them or not, there is a public good argument to be made for each. Drug addicts could use their food stamps to buy drugs. Placing sex offenders in public housing might place other tenants at risk. Extending government aid to wanted criminals could delay their apprehension.
The new restrictions in the Farm Bill, signed by Pres. Obama on Friday, are still being parsed; a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the agency is scrambling to figure out which offenders would be excluded from food aid. But at least on the surface, the prohibitions appear to be a departure from the public safety rationale, and more directly punative. (Ironically, due to existing prohibitions on where they live and what work they can find, sex offenders are more likely to find themselves in need of assistance.)
For those in favor of perpetual punishment for sex offenders, it is undeniably true that many will always be terrible people unworthy of any assistance. Yet, as Jason C.'s case against the plumbing board demonstrates, not all of them are.