Hungry? Need a job? Have a drug conviction in your past?
Good news, as of yesterday, Californians who were convicted of felony drug possession, use, or distribution after December 31, 1997, will no longer be disqualified from receiving CalWORKs (California’s version of employment assistance for poor people) and CalFresh (food stamps) benefits.
Shockingly, we have allowed thousands of children and poor families go hungry for more than 18 years based on an ill-informed and arcane approach to drug use and drug law violations stewarded by former President Bill Clinton.
In 1996, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (better 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.
Two years later, in 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 lifetimeban for any type of felony drug offense (including marijuana possession).
But the blue state of California chose not to "opt out" and Drug Policy Alliance, along with other advocates and organizations, has worked to eliminate the ban for years. Unsuccessful until now, thousands of Californians have been ineligible to receive basic public benefits due to their criminal records resulting from behavior they had long ago completed “punishment” for. According to CAADPE (California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executive), in 2012 about 10,500 child-only CalWORKs cases included an adult who was ineligible, and as many as 20,000 individuals were ineligible for CalFresh.
Eliminating the ban will increase the number of people in CalFresh which would bring more federal money into our state, boosting consumer spending, stimulating local businesses, and promoting job growth. More families receiving federal food assistance not only reduces hunger and poverty, it increases the chances for successful reentry, which in turn saves the state and localities millions in jail, prison and other criminal justice expenses.
Nationally, about 25 percent of people released from prison with drug convictions are custodial parents who would otherwise qualify for food assistance according to a federal 2005 study.
Mothers have especially suffered under this ban, as women often serve as drug carriers or “mules,” catching a felony for “transporting a controlled substance.” People with drug felonies are saddled with often lifetime collateral consequences, which, in addition to food assistance bans, can include ineligibility for federal student loans, business loan and other professional licensing denial, voting rights, adoption rights, public housing bans and more.
Denied these basic rights and public benefits, individuals who have already paid their debt to society (by completing court ordered incarceration and/or parole) are left with few opportunities.
To withhold these federal benefits is to engender hunger, despondency and a return to drug use and, potentially, drug selling. California has taken a step towards greater human rights and dignity by enacting new drug policies based in science, compassion, health and human rights.
Lynne Lyman is the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.