Pubdate: Wed, 17 Aug 2016
Source: Walker County Messenger (GA)
Copyright: 2016 Walker County Messenger.
Author: Teresa Wiltz, The Pew Charitable Trusts/Stateline


ATLANTA - Twenty years after a federal law blocked people with felony 
drug convictions from receiving welfare or food stamps, more states 
are loosening those restrictions - or waiving them entirely.

In April, Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, signed a criminal justice 
reform bill that lifted the ban on food stamps for drug felons in 
Georgia. Alaska followed suit in July, although applicants must prove 
they are complying with parole and are in treatment for substance 
abuse. And in Delaware, a bill to lift cash assistance restrictions 
for drug felons passed out of committee in June. The legislative 
session ended before the bill could be put to a vote.

The changes come amid broader efforts in Washington and many states 
to reform drug policies and criminal justice approaches. And they 
reflect a growing consensus that helping people when they are 
released from prison can increase the chances that they don't end up 
going back.

People who have been incarcerated need a leg up to successfully 
re-enter the community, says Roberta Meyers of the Legal Action 
Center, a nonprofit that fights discrimination against people who 
have been in prison, have substance abuse issues or have AIDS.

"Most have a hard time getting a job and initially need to rely on 
public assistance. And food is a basic primary way they need help," 
Meyers said.

The federal ban was established in 1996, a product of the tough 
policies of the "war on drugs" and sweeping welfare reform that 
restricted recipients to no more than five years of government 
assistance in most states and required most recipients to work, do 
community service or enroll in vocational training.

It prohibits those convicted of felony drug crimes - but not other 
felonies - from receiving food stamps and cash assistance, but states 
have the option of relaxing those rules.

Today just seven states - Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, 
Nebraska, South Carolina and West Virginia - still have full bans on 
drug felons receiving food stamps. A proposal to lift the food stamp 
ban failed to advance in the Nebraska Legislature in March.

States have been more reluctant to lift their restrictions on cash 
assistance, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; but at 
least 11 states and the District of Columbia have done so, according 
to the Congressional Research Service.

Despite the movement to loosen the ban, some critics object to making 
the change at a time when states are being forced to slash their budgets.

"States should be looking for ways to shrink the welfare rolls and 
tighten eligibility requirements to families legitimately working to 
get back on their feet," said Texas state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a 
Republican who last year voted against lifting the state's food 
stamps ban. "Expanding welfare benefits to convicted drug dealers and 
drug felons is a giant leap in the wrong direction."

But Georgia state Rep. Rich Golick, a Republican who supported 
lifting the ban in his state, said the ban didn't make sense on a 
number of levels.

"You had individuals who were coming out of the system convicted of a 
violent crime who had the eligibility to apply for food stamps 
whereas someone who went in on a drug charge, including possession, 
didn't have that ability.

"You're increasing the chances that they may reoffend because they 
don't have the ability to make ends meet. Doesn't this go against 
what we're trying to achieve as they re-enter society?"

Loosening the Restrictions

About half a million people in the U.S. are incarcerated with a 
felony drug conviction. Most are not high-level drug dealers and have 
no prior criminal record for a violent offense, according to a 2015 
report by the Sentencing Project, which advocates against racial 
disparities in sentencing and for alternatives to incarceration.

Sixteen percent of people in state prisons are being held on felony 
drug offenses; in federal prisons that number is close to half, 
according to the report.

Proponents of lifting the restrictions say the bans target poor 
people and minorities and drive people further into poverty, sending 
them in and out of federal and state prisons. A 2013 study by the 
Yale School of Medicine found that 91 percent of people recently 
released from prison didn't have reliable access to food.

"One of the best ways that someone can move on after they've been 
released from prison is their ability to eat and take care of 
themselves," said Marissa McCall Dodson of the Southern Center for 
Human Rights.

As states grapple with reducing their burgeoning prison populations, 
many are looking for ways to help former inmates as they return home.

"A lot of legislatures are starting to see it's not beneficial to 
have these flat bans and indefinite restrictions imposed on people," 
Meyers of the Legal Action Center said.

By 2001, eight states and the District of Columbia had completely 
opted out of the food stamps and cash assistance bans, while another 
20 states had modified them, according to the Sentencing Project.

Last year, Texas removed its blanket food stamps ban, while Alabama 
eliminated its food stamps and cash assistance bans.

More rural states are less likely to lift the bans, because they 
aren't as affected by large numbers of people with drug records being 
released into their communities, Meyers said. "The struggle is very 
different from urban centers if they're moving back to rural towns 
where everyone knows them."

Today, about a dozen states still ban felons from receiving welfare 
payments. About half of all states have modified the ban in some way.

At least four states - Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - 
have recently modified the cash assistance ban to require those with 
a drug record to undergo drug testing in order to receive cash 
assistance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"There are higher hurdles to clear" to lift cash assistance bans, 
said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. 
"And that's more about welfare and anti-welfare sentiment in this country."

This year, several bills that would have lifted the cash assistance 
ban failed in the Virginia House and Senate. In May, New Jersey Gov. 
Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have allowed childless drug 
offenders to receive cash assistance amounting to $140 a month. 
(Former offenders with children are eligible for cash assistance.) 
Christie said he was open to compromise if the bill was amended to 
exclude former drug dealers from receiving assistance.

Change in Georgia

Georgia has the country's highest correctional control rate - that 
is, the share of people who are either incarcerated or on parole or 
probation. Each year, about 10,400 people are released from state 
custody with drug felonies, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Before the ban was lifted, approximately 555 Georgia residents were 
denied food stamps each month because of a drug felony, according to 
a report by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), a 
nonpartisan research group, and the Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew also 
funds Stateline). Their children and anyone else in their household 
could receive benefits.

And each year, because of the ban, the state was losing as much as 
$10.4 million in federal food stamps, the study found. The federal 
government pays for food stamps through block grants to the states 
but splits the administrative costs with states.

"Once legislators understood that these are federal dollars that we 
are ignoring - that was a big selling point in modifying the food 
stamps ban," said Melissa Johnson, senior policy analyst for the GBPI.

Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, a 
legal services nonprofit that lobbied to lift the welfare 
restrictions, recalls an elderly client who applied for benefits a 
few years back. The man, who'd served time for a drug conviction in 
the '60s, moved a few miles across from the state line, from Florida 
to Georgia, and found that his change of address meant he could no 
longer receive food stamps.

"That [drug] record can haunt you and have real-life implications. 
It's a lifetime of punishment," Ammar said. "How long should your 
brush with the law impact you and your family?"
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom