Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican, is attacking Democrats for passing a pandemic relief bill that will send money to prisoners.
“Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Bomber, murdered three people and terrorized a city. He’ll be getting a $1,400 stimulus check as part of the Democrats’ ‘COVID relief’ bill,” Cotton tweeted on Saturday to his approximately 142,000 followers. Cotton, who voted against the bill, posted a near-identical message on Facebook to his 308,000 followers there.
Cotton tweeted a similar message about Dylann Roof, the perpetrator of a 2015 massacre at a renowned Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Cotton also asked on Twitter: “How will sending stimulus checks to murderers and rapists in prison help solve the pandemic?”
Cotton complained again about prisoners getting checks during a Fox News appearance on Monday morning, saying this was a “crazy” Democratic idea.
Cotton’s attack on Democrats was echoed by North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn on Twitter on Sunday. Fox News, meanwhile, turned Cotton’s tweets into an ominous headline on the front page of its website: “FUNDING CONVICTED KILLERS. Democratic COVID bill gives mass murderers taxpayer money right out of your pocket.”
But Cotton’s attack left out a highly relevant fact.
Facts First: Prisoners also received checks from both of the pandemic relief bills that then-President Donald Trump signed and Cotton voted for. Neither the bill Trump signed with Cotton’s support in March nor the bill Trump signed with Cotton’s support in December contained any language prohibiting prisoners from getting relief funding.
The Trump-era Internal Revenue Service did try, belatedly, to prevent prisoners from getting money from the first bill. But tax law experts across the political spectrum said the IRS had no authority to do this given that the text of the law did not exclude prisoners. After prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit, a federal judge ruled in October that the government had to let prisoners access the cash.
“The IRS did not try to pull the same stunt with the second bill,” said Kelly Dermody, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.
We can’t confirm that Tsarnaev and Roof in particular are among the prisoners who actually received relief funding from the two bills Trump signed. Many prisoners had to submit new paperwork to the IRS in order to claim the money, a significant hurdle for some of them.
But it is clear that convicted murderers, like other people convicted of crimes, were generally eligible for the Trump-era payments.
“Assuming that (1) Mr. Tsarnaev’s adjusted gross income fell below $75,000 in 2019 or 2018, (2) he possessed a valid Social Security number, and (3) no one could claim him as a tax dependent, then he would have been eligible for the two previous checks issued under President Trump,” said Patrick Thomas, a University of Notre Dame associate clinical professor of law and the director of the Notre Dame Tax Clinic.
The fact that the Trump-era bills did not exclude prisoners was especially noteworthy because the stimulus bill President Barack Obama signed during the 2009 economic crisis made prisoners ineligible for checks unless they had only very recently become incarcerated.
Cotton’s past votes
Prisoners, like other individuals, were eligible for checks up to $1,200 per individual from the first bill Trump signed and up to $600 from the second bill Trump signed, depending on their income.
Both of those bills were approved by a Republican-controlled Senate – and Cotton voted for both of them.
The first bill, the CARES Act in March 2020, was passed 96-0 by the Senate; Cotton was one of the 96 in favor. Cotton’s press secretary, James Arnold, noted to CNN that the IRS issued guidance saying prisoners were ineligible for the checks from this bill. Again, though, the bill itself did not include any such prohibition, which is why the court ruled in favor of the prisoners.
The second bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, was passed 92-6 by the Senate; Cotton was one of the 92 in favor. Arnold noted that there was not an opportunity on the Senate floor to offer amendments to this bill. However, Republican leaders could have inserted language before the bill reached the floor to prohibit checks for prisoners. They did not do so.
On Saturday, with Democrats now in control of a 50-50 Senate, the Senate voted 50-49, along party lines, to pass a bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, that includes checks of up to $1,400 per individual, depending on their income. The bill, which now requires another approval from the House, is expected to be sent to President Joe Biden this week to be signed into law.
This time, as Cotton noted in his Monday appearance on Fox News, Senate Republicans tried to pass an amendment – from Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy and Cotton – to deny prisoners the checks. The amendment was voted down, 50-49, with all 50 Democrats opposed and all Republicans present in favor.
When CNN asked Arnold whether Cotton ever criticized Trump or his fellow Republicans for sending relief money to prisoners, Arnold said Cotton has only criticized Democrats because only Democrats approved sending checks to prisoners when there was a vote on that specific question.
Challenges for prisoners
Advocates for prisoners say it makes sense to send relief money to people behind bars. The Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy organization, noted in 2020 that many incarcerated people will be released soon and that high pandemic-era unemployment makes it especially difficult for formerly incarcerated people to get jobs. The Prison Policy Initiative also noted that prisoners’ family members and friends on the outside, many of them low-income people themselves, often have to bear the burden of paying for prisoners’ basic supplies, medical co-pays, and phone calls and messages.
“Providing stimulus funds to incarcerated people helps protect the health and well-being of those behind bars and provides relief to their loved ones at home,” the Prison Policy Initiative said in 2020.
Wanda Bertram, a Prison Policy Initiative spokesperson, said Monday that prisoners continue to have “a lot of trouble” accessing their money from the first and second relief bills.
“One common problem is the IRS sending people in prison these prepaid debit cards rather than checks, and debit cards are useless in prison. Lots of people have applied to receive checks that they never got last year and have heard nothing from the IRS. And for people who are getting the checks, we’re still seeing criminal justice systems, child support agencies, and even private companies taking hundreds of dollars out before the check ever reaches the person,” she said.
This story has been updated with further comment from Cotton’s spokesperson.