Felony Pot Conviction? No Food For You. It’s The Law.

I wrote the original article addressing this issue in 2012. This is an update on that story and the failed legislation that could bring food to families with drug convictions. Many people who received felony convictions for marijuana possession have a lifetime ineligibility for food stamps and other federal aid. We believe this needs to change. Some states are making the move themselves by lifting the ban. Many states, such as Texas, will be unlikely to do so without federal legislation. Bills were submitted by House Democrats in 2011 and 2013. In both instances, the bills were sent to committee to die. Let’s keep fighting for these people — and their families — who have paid their debts to society.

On December 21 2012, Dr. Emily Wang, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and the Associate Director of the Transitions Clinic Network,?posted a piece in?The American Prospect about the plight of Carla,?a convicted felon who had recently been released from prison. Carla showed up at Dr. Wang’s office in tears. She had been doing well since her release from prison. She was drug-free, had regained custody of her children, and was enrolled in a local community college.

Things were looking great for Carla, so why was she upset? In spite of a diligent job search, her felony conviction made it virtually impossible to find even an entry-level job, and she couldn’t feed her children because she had no money and was not eligible for food stamps.

Why was she not eligible for food stamps? Was it because she’s a felon?

Not exactly.

If Carla were a murderer or a rapist, or had a conviction of child abuse or armed robbery, she’d qualify for food stamps. But because she was convicted of possession of marijuana at the age of 20, she is ineligible for state assistance via the SNAP (food stamp) program. While children of felons remain eligible for SNAP and TANF, the restrictions for felons means that benefits will be declined for the entire household.

Carla is one of thousands of former convicted drug offenders who continue to be penalized because of a specific passage in the 1996?Welfare Reform Act. The?specific passage?of the Act was implemented to keep drug users from selling their food stamps for drug money. This concern is largely irrelevant today because food stamp funds are distributed electronically via a ?debit? card that must be used during checkout at grocery stores.

I suppose that ?technically,? Carla could buy prime rib and then sell it (what’s the street value of prime rib?), but that is unrealistic. She could also give someone her card to use. I’m sure that it does happen, but most people use their food stamp funds to buy food for themselves and their families. Food stamp fraud is actually quite rare, despite inaccurate data reported by?disreputable news sources.

People who are coming out of prison are vulnerable. It’s extremely difficult to find employment with a felony conviction. Renting an apartment or home is challenging because many apartment complexes have policies that prohibit renting to felons, and?some communities have even passed laws that disallow landlords from renting to convicted felons. Many convicted felons lost everything when they were locked up, and while some have supportive families, many do not.

32 states ban people with drug felony convictions from receiving food stamps. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that?ten states?have a?lifetime ban?for food stamp eligibility for drug felony convictions, and 23 states have a partial ban. Partial bans permit eligibility for people convicted of ?possession? or who are enrolled in a drug treatment program. People who were convicted of selling drugs are completely ineligible.?Missouri?is considering lifting its ban. Alabama?is on the right track. States that still maintain the ban include Georgia, Texas, West Virginia, and Delaware. don’t expect some of these states to lift these bans willingly. From?America’s Wire:

Celia Cole, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, has been working on this issue since 1999. During that time, six bills proposing that food stamp benefits be provided to ex-felons were introduced and died in the state legislature.

With state reintegration programs for former inmates being cut for budgetary reasons, Cole said she hopes that budget-conscious lawmakers will give new legislation a better reception.

?Our position has always been that food assistance is critical to successful re-integration into society,? she says. ?We see being able to feed themselves as way to being able to rebuild their lives.?

But Texas lawmakers, and those in other politically conservative states that support the restrictions, tend to take a dim view of entitlement programs and an even dimmer view of criminals.

?We’re a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap state, so there’s limited support for food stamps to begin with,? Cole says. ?There’s also this knee-jerk reaction to people with felony drug convictions. Lawmakers don’t want to appear soft on crime.?

U.S. House Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Barbara Lee introduced the?Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act of 2011?on January 20, 2011, and the Act was ?Referred to Committee? on the same day. The bill’s stated purpose was:

?To amend the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 to repeal the denial of food stamp eligibility of ex-offenders.?

The?last action on this bill?is listed as ?03/03/2011 Referred to the Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture.??This 2011 bill had a two percent chance of getting past committee, and a zero percent chance of being?enacted?(source:?govtrack.us). Guess what? GovTrack nailed it. It died in committee.

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Fast-track to January 2013 when Rep. Lee renamed the bill “Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act of 2013” and introduced it on January 3, 2013. Last activity on the bill? Once again, this important bill was sent to die in committee; it was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture on January 4, 2013, the day after it was introduced.

It’s still there. It’s a joke.

All Rep. Barbara Lee did was rename and change the date on the 2011 bill and resubmit it. It was a lazy repurposing of an old, tired bill in the first week of the 113th Congress.

The co-sponsors of the bill were Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). We must hold these elected Democrats accountable.

Official bill summary:

Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act of 2013 – Amends the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 to repeal the denial of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) eligibility of a person convicted of a felony which has as an element the possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance.

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GovTrack doesn’t give us any hope for H.R.197 — it would be false hope, anyhow. My psychic prediction is that it too will die in committee.

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While we appreciate Rep. Lee’s efforts, and the efforts of the bill’s cosponsors, we have to question the point of simply reintroducing the same bill over and over with no hope for its passage. A quick Google search netted me no recent discussion of H.R. 197. Are the sponsors fighting for this bill? I’ve tweeted to them and will watch for an update.

Dr. Emily Wang has first-hand knowledge of the damaging consequences of the food stamp ban.

?As a doctor who cares predominantly for people who are released from prison, I see the damaging consequences of this ban on food stamps. I have seen patients of mine with diabetes go without food and end up hospitalized with low blood sugar, and still others with HIV skip their antiretrovirals because they don’t have food to take with their pills. Not having access to food is associated with bad health outcomes including worsening diabetes, HIV, depression. Young children face anemia, diabetes, and depression.

Women with children are especially affected. It’s estimated that 70,000 women and their children are banned from obtaining food stamps. This means mothers who are simply trying to feed themselves and their children, and who are trying to get back on their feet after serving their time, are banned from receiving the money to pay for the basics necessary to survive. Meanwhile, 46 million others, including college graduates and PhDs with far more resources, can receive food aid.?

Numerous studies?have shown that people lacking access to resources increases the recidivism rate. Denying food is an ineffective and dangerous attempt to control crime. What happens too often is that newly released individuals is virtually forced to return to crime to feed themselves and their families.

What does the future hold for Carla? It’s hard to say. She could become an attorney if she can keep herself fed long enough to go to law school.?Most states?have no restrictions that prohibit felons from practicing law even if they can’t get food stamps. For now, Carla has resorted to prostitution to earn money. She said: ?I am putting myself at risk for HIV to get my kids a f***ing happy meal.?

As stated by Dr.Wang: ?Beyond all that, at just 23, Carla deserves a second chance, and her kids deserve a first.??

 
Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Barbara Lee’s Twitter accounts are?@RepBarbaraLee?and@RosaDelauro. Co-sponsors of H.R. 197 are @JohnConyers,?@cbrangel, and?@RepWilson.

Tell them that it’s not enough to repurpose old bills as I’ve repuposed this article. Tell them that it’s urgent that they stay on top of this.?You can also contact your representatives in Congress?and demand that they revisit the?Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act of 2013.

It’s good news that some states are taking matters into their own hands. But we need federal policy on this. It’s NOT enough that our Democrats in Congress are writing and repurposing these meaningless bills that they know are going to die in committee. It’s laziness for the purpose of giving the appearance of busy-ness.

I’ve tweeted this Rep. Lee and her colleagues. You can increase our chances of getting a response by retweeting my Tweet to them. I’ve embedded it below so that it can be easily retweeted.

The text of Dr. Wang’s article can be viewed in its entirety on?AlterNet. I couldn’t find an update on Carla.


tiffany willis texas liberal america

Tiffany Willis is the founder and editor-in-chief of Liberal America. An unapologetic member of the Christian Left, she has spent most of her career actively working with ?the least of these? and disadvantaged and oppressed populations. She’s passionate about their struggles. To stay on top of topics she discusses,?like her?Facebook page,?follow her on Twitter, or?connect with her via LinkedIn. She also has?a?grossly neglected personal blog?and a?literary quotes blog that is a labor of love. Find her somewhere and join the discussion.

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