Pubdate: Tue, 08 Apr 2014
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Copyright: 2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Author: Marie French
Note: Marie French is a reporter in the Jefferson City bureau.


JEFFERSON CITY - Christine McDonald remembers standing in line at food
pantries for hours to get food for two or three days.

She had a newborn son, was newly blind and out of work and could have
used some help. But because of a drug conviction, she was not eligible
for food stamps.

"You couple finding a job with a criminal record, with having no
eyeballs, you're going to face some societal barriers," McDonald said.
"If I would've killed someone I could've gotten food stamps."

Missouri's lifetime ban on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program, or SNAP, for people convicted of a drug-related felony is an
artifact of the welfare reform effort of 1996. Most states have
modified or removed the lifetime ban. Missouri is one of 10 states
that have not.

But for the first time, an effort to loosen the restriction, with some
caveats, is making progress in the Missouri Legislature. The Missouri
Senate has approved a bill, and the idea has garnered bipartisan
support in the House.

It's the most progress the proposal has made since McDonald began
testifying on it in 2008. She last got out of prison in 2004 and lost
her sight in 2006 after deciding not to take medication to control the
inflammation in her eyes while pregnant because it may have harmed her

McDonald said most people weren't aware of the lifetime ban, which
applies only to drug-related crimes.

The bill seeks to modify the ban but includes safeguards and
restrictions for those with drug felonies on their records.
Individuals could become eligible one year after the conviction or
release from prison and would have to either complete a treatment
program or be certified as not needing treatment. A "three strikes"
provision bans anyone with three drug-related felony

"It's harsh still, but it's a lot better than saying if you get in
trouble once you're never getting any help," McDonald said.
"Absolutely we need to know they're clean."

Bill sponsor Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, introduced the bill with
fewer restrictions but said she was open to compromise to move the
idea forward. She said food assistance would reduce the chances that a
person with a drug problem would relapse and return to prison.

"I think it gives folks an opportunity to succeed," Curls said. "I
think it's time for significant discussion to be had on this issue."

Most Republicans in the Senate supported the bill. Sen. David Sater,
R-Cassville, voted for it after adding the amendment restricting food
stamps for people with three drug-related convictions.

"I think there needs to be a cap so if you continue to be a repeat
offender, the third time you strike out," Sater said.

Four Senate Republicans voted against the bill. Sen. Will Kraus,
R-Lee's Summit, opposes expanding the state's food stamp program
because he said it already had a high level of waste and fraud.

"I believe the program is broken and needs to be fixed," Kraus said.
"I'm concerned that we're continuing to spend a large amount of
federal money on a program that has so much fraud, waste and abuse."

There's also bipartisan support in the House for the change. Rep. Paul
Wieland, R-Imperial, sponsored the House version of the bill and said
there was enough support from Republicans to pass the measure.

Wieland's bill would waive the ban five years after a felony drug
conviction. It would also require the applicant to take a sobriety
test to qualify for the benefits.

He said lifting the lifetime ban would ensure that people who have
started over and lost their jobs are able to access the assistance.

It's also a matter of fairness, Wieland said. Other types of crimes -
including violent crimes such as murder, assault or child molestation
- - don't carry a lifetime food stamps ban.

"By denying people convicted of drug offenses food stamps, we're
making it more difficult for them," Wieland said.

McDonald, now 44, said she believed the ban on food stamps for those
convicted of drug felonies put people in danger of relapsing. She
pointed to a recovery slogan, "Don't get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or
Tired," and said hunger could be a trigger.

"We know that with proper treatment and rehabilitation, people can get
clean and sober and never use again," McDonald said. "If we take care,
nurture the person, we keep the disease of addiction at bay. If you
can't feed yourself or your family, out of frustration you're going to
go back to the drugs, back to whatever criminal acts get the money for
the drugs."

McDonald said she no longer needed assistance from the food stamp
program. She's running her own nonprofit called Christine's Vision,
has written a book and bought a house. Her son, Richard, 8, is on the
honor roll.

"A lot of positive things have happened in my life," McDonald said.
"It's not just me. There are other people that are affected by this.
The reality is it's bad policy."

Marie French is a reporter in the Jefferson City bureau.
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