In the budget sausage-making process that culminated in a successful vote over the weekend, an amazing piece of meat (vegan or the real stuff) was produced in California. If approved by the governor, as expected, California will allow people with drug felonies on their record to be eligible for food stamps for the first time since 1996.
Tucked in the extensive trailer language was a provision that California anti-hunger, anti-poverty, drug policy reform, and civil rights advocates have been trying to get through the Legislature every session since 1998 - the elimination of the lifetime ban on receiving CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids) or CalFresh (California’s food stamps program) for people with past nonviolent, drug-related felony offenses. Of all felony records, including rape and murder, drug offenses have long been singled out for special exclusion from public benefits in California, and across the nation.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (also known as Welfare Reform), which among other “get tough on crime” (and on poor people) provisions, enacted a lifetime ban on federal food stamp programs for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense. Already by 1998, anti-hunger advocates and many in Congress realized the folly of this policy and allowed for states to “opt out” of the lifetime ban.
Since that time the majority of states have partially or wholly opted out of the ban, with only twelve maintaining the full lifetime ban for any type of felony drug offense. But California withstood attempts to eliminate the ban that have been initiated in every legislative session since 1998.
People with drug felonies are saddled with lifetime collateral consequences, which in addition to food stamps, can include ineligibility for federal student loans, business loans and other professional licensing denials, voting rights, adoption rights, public housing bans and more. Denied these basic rights and public benefits, people who have already paid their debt to society are unable to secure nutritious food for their families, along with other critical public benefits that would help them be successful, contributing members of society.
By allowing people previously convicted of a drug felony to receive basic services, employment training and other supports through these programs, we expect to see reduced recidivism and improved outcomes for job placement and child wellbeing for the low-income families that have been hurt by this ban. More families receiving federal food assistance not only reduces hunger and poverty, it reduces recidivism by increasing the chances for successful re-entry, which in turn saves the state and localities millions in jail, prison and other criminal justice expenses.
California’s food stamps ban is just one of the many shards of destruction imbedded in poor communities after 40 years of the war on drugs. It is long time we began to repair the damage our draconian drug policies have wrought.
If we expect people in recovery from drug addiction to become productive citizens and to reintegrate into society, we must ensure they have the same access to public support as other needy members of the community.
Yesterday’s sausage making offers a modest yet important amount of relief, puts some real food on the table in California, and ideally sets an example for the remaining states to embrace sensible reform.
Lynne Lyman is the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.