Pubdate: Wed, 27 Apr 2016
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2016 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Craig Schneider


Governor Expected to Sign Proposals Backed by Justice Reform Panel.

The change could help some 6,600 Georgians rejected each year for 
food stamps because they are convicted drug felons, according to 
research by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Every time Norvell Lawhorne applied for food stamps, he was turned 
down because he was a convicted drug felon. That conviction has made 
it harder to find a job, housing and even food. He now makes his bed 
in an Atlanta homeless shelter.

He's excited that Gov. Nathan Deal plans to sign a bill today to lift 
the lifetime ban on food stamps for convicted drug felons. He 
believes it will give him a chance to get back on his feet.

"It's excellent news for me," said Lawhorne, 54, who said he was 
convicted of possession of cocaine a few years ago and served about 
six months. "It will help me with food. I won't have to wait on lines 
for the churches to feed me."

Georgia was among the last handful of states using the lifetime ban 
adopted by the federal government in 1996. The federal government 
allows states to bow out of the ban and many already have. The 
Georgia measure is among a series of proposals by Deal's Council on 
Criminal Justice Reform. Deal is expected today to sign a package of 
those proposals, which also include changes to allow first-time 
offenders a chance to seal their court records. The food stamp 
measure reflects the changing mindset in recent years regarding the 
harsh punishments on nonviolent drug offenses. Georgia is among 
numerous states who have lessened penalties, due to new thoughts on 
rehabilitating criminals and the great costs of housing a multitude 
of such prisoners.

The measure even received a nod from the president of the fiscally 
conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

"I do believe that if people have served their sentence, they should 
be able to re-integrate into society," Kelly McCutchen said.

Still, McCutchen worries that some of these offenders could start 
collecting food stamps and not work at becoming productive citizens.

"Any government welfare program should focus on temporary assistance, 
and should have work requirements attached to it," he said.

Already, there have been efforts in Georgia to put in place work 
mandates for able-bodied food stamp recipients.

Thomas Worthy, co-chair of the criminal justice reform council, said 
the old food stamp law was passed as part of a "get-tough-on-crime, 
three-strikes-you're-out mentality." But more recent studies show 
that mentality doesn't work. Granting these offenders access to food 
stamps will help them re-integrate into society, he said, and help 
them avoid landing back behind bars.

The change could help some 6,600 Georgians rejected each year for 
food stamps because they are convicted drug felons, according to 
research by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. That could mean 
an additional $10.4 million in federal dollars coming to Georgia's 
food stamp program. Food stamps are funded with federal money.

Drug offenders were held to an unfair standard under the law, social 
service advocates say. They noted that people convicted of robbery, 
burglary or murder can collect food stamps, so long as they abide by 
their parole or probation conditions.

Lawhorne said,"You got all these people out here able to get food 
stamps, and they've been charged with worse crimes."

The food stamp measure sailed through the state General Assembly with 
hardly any opposition. It has been endorsed by the Prosecuting 
Attorneys Council of Georgia.

Having access to food is an important first step for a person 
emerging from incarceration, said Marissa Dodson of the Southern 
Center for Human Rights. Without food stamps, they can become a 
burden on family, and even fall back into crime or old drug habits.

Having food stamps, Lawhorne said, "will give me something I can 
contribute if I move in with someone. It will help me with food. ... 
That will be beautiful." 
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