After the recent US Supreme Court order that California must decrease its prison population by over 30,000 inmates in the next two years, many of the prisoners released to an early parole will be non-violent drug offenders. With limited county re-entry resources to help these former prisoners find job training, affordable housing and healthcare, it’s already a challenge for them to reintegrate into the community from prison. Add the lifetime ban that prevents people with prior drug-related offenses from receiving food stamps (now a program called CalFresh) in California, and former prisoner Selena Winn says these restrictions push people into a tight financial corner.
“If you can’t get food stamps, then after you spend all your money paying rent, how are you going eat?” she said. “It’s sending people back out on the streets, doing wrong, begging for change or stealing.”
Winn went to prison twice for drug sale-related charges and she hasn’t been back since 2007. In two months, she’ll be off parole. “That was the old me,” she said of her past criminal charges. “Now I’ve changed my life and I still can’t get food stamps.” Winn said the $291 she receives from county’s general assistance program barely pays her rent. If it wasn’t for the help of a friend, she said, she’d go without the medication she needs to treat her post traumatic stress disorder.
But a new bill, AB 828, authored by Oakland Democratic State Assemblyman Sandre Swanson could lift the ban preventing former drug offenders from receiving food stamps. “It is the right thing to do,” Swanson said, adding that California invests millions of dollars supporting prisoners who are released, only to find them returning to jail within a couple of years because they have committed new crimes.
“We must make it a priority to create a comprehensive re-entry strategy to address our 70 percent recidivism rate,” Swanson said. “Instead of the state spending $50,000 to house one adult repeat offender for one year, I would rather use that money to provide needed funds to an entire third grade classroom.”
Additionally, advocates of lifting the ban say food stamps provide a direct local economic benefit to communities. Moody’s Analytics, an economic consulting company, found that for every dollar of CalFresh benefits spent, local communities see $1.74 in return. This comes from sales-tax revenue and the increased business at grocery stores.
The drug felon ban is part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act signed by former president Bill Clinton. Unlike previous welfare laws, the act required aid recipients to work at a job or job-training program in exchange for a monthly general assistance check; the change was intended to help families move from welfare to self-sufficiency.
The drug felon ban was introduced with the Welfare Reform Act as an opt-in proposal for states. It gave states the choice to make former drug offenders ineligible for Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a move intended to discourage drug offenders from exchanging food stamps for drugs.
But once a state opted-in, state officials could also decide to reverse course, opting back out of the ban through legislative action. So far, 37 states and the District of Columbia have restored nutrition benefits to people with former drug offenses.
“The ban was originally created out of fear of the misuse of food stamps,” Swanson said. “That fear is now misguided. The physical stamp is no longer used. Now, that Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards are used to administer CalFresh benefits. Therefore, the fear of trading stamps for drugs is no longer relevant.”
Swanson has made other attempts to remove California’s lifetime ban on food stamps, carrying similar bills in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, although none have become law. In vetoing the 2008 bill, AB 1996, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent assemblymembers an open letter, writing “Extending food stamp eligibility to drug dealers or traffickers, upon the condition that they engage in drug treatment, will not ensure these individuals will stop selling or trafficking illegal drugs.”
Swanson has also authored two other bills over the last couple of years that he says will help reduce prison spending and decrease recidivism. Neither of the bills have made it to the governor’s desk, though AB 216, which would allow community colleges to offer courses in prison, is currently being considered by the Senate Education Committee.
This past May, California lawmakers voted 42-23 to move Swanson’s newest food stamps bill, AB 828, to the state senate again.
Last month, Ecaterina Burton, advocacy and education associate for the Alameda County Food Bank, organized a Hunger Action Day during which people traveled to Sacramento to encourage legislators to support anti-hunger legislation. “Any kind of way that we can decrease barriers to food stamps is incredibly important,” she said. “This particular ban on drug felons hurts families’ abilities to feed themselves, because ultimately they are splitting less amount of food amongst more people.”
At that event, Burton, along with other organizations supporting AB 828, brought over 300 people from across the state to speak to their legislators about why they should lift the lifetime ban. Frankie Fardella, a former drug offender, traveled with Burton and continues to make frequent trips to the Capitol to have his voice heard by lawmakers.
“I’m not a criminal anymore,” Fardella said. He said he was 21 when he went to prison for a drug sale conviction; he’s now 27, has stayed out of legal trouble and recently graduated from a one-year drug rehabilitation program. “It doesn’t matter if I stay out of trouble for 10 years and I need help, it’s not going to matter—it’s for life,” he said of the food stamps ban. “Even people who are murderers or rapists, child molesters—they’re eligible for food stamps. And it’s heartbreaking when you think about it. People need to eat. Even when you’re in jail or prison, you get ‘three hots and a cot’” — the guaranteed three meals a day an inmate receives.
But California Republicans who voted against the bill when it was in the State Assembly say that allowing ex-drug offenders to receive these benefits rewards bad behavior and that hundreds of felons could become eligible for the food stamps, costing the federal government up to $1 million.
“There are no safeguards to ensure that the person receiving the stamps has gone through treatment,” said Sabrina Lockhart, press secretary for Republican Assemblymember Connie Conway of Los Angeles. Conway was one of the 23 assemblymembers who opposed moving AB 828 to the Senate. “During these tight fiscal times,” Lockhart said, “expanding services is not the right way to go, especially when it means allowing drug felons receiving food stamps.”
The California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) also argues that these ex drug-offenders are likely to use the EBT cards fraudulently. In a statement opposing the bill, CDAA representatives wrote, “Expanding the availability of these benefits to persons convicted of trafficking and manufacturing offenses increases the risk that public resources will be used to facilitate criminal activity.”
Swanson’s bill is currently before the Senate Appropriations Committee. It will be heard on June 27, 2011. If it passes, it will move to the Senate Floor.
“We have high hopes for this year,” Burton said. “With a Democratic governor, we actually have a chance to get rid of this ridiculous policy that makes it hard for someone after they have done their time to become a fully functioning member of society contributing and giving back as well.”