WASHINGTON -- Two states are taking small steps away from a little-known aspect of the war on drugs.
The California Legislature has just passed a bill that will allow people convicted of drug-related felonies to receive welfare and food stamps. And last week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) signed legislation lifting the state's ban on food stamps for felons.
The felon bans were relics of the tough-on-crime politics of the 1990s, and their demise is partly due to waning support for the harsh treatment of drug users.
"In a lot of cases, the law enforcement community is supportive and feels this is a way to reduce recidivism," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a liberal D.C. think tank. Lower-Basch noted that other states, including Alabama and West Virginia, have also considered changing their policies. "We're moving in the right direction."
Since 1996, federal law has banned anyone with a drug-related felony conviction from receiving benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But the law allows states to waive or modify the bans, and most states have done so.
According to The Sentencing Project, a drug law reform group, California was one of 24 states with modified bans on SNAP and TANF in place. Missouri, previously one of the nine states with full bans, will now let drug felons get SNAP if they stay clean.
"I think it gives folks an opportunity to succeed," bill sponsor and state Sen. Kiki Curls (D) said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
While a few states may be slowly liberalizing their approach to welfare and felons, many others have sought to impose drug testing programs to make relief applicants prove they're sober. Republicans in Congress tried but failed to change federal law to make it easier for states to impose drug tests for food stamps.
The 1996 federal law banning felons from food stamps and welfare targets only people convicted of drug-related crimes, not felons who have committed murder, for example. Without much debate, last year both the U.S. House and Senate approved legislation championed by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) that would have banned rapists and murderers from food stamps, but lawmakers quietly dropped Vitter's language when they merged the House and Senate bills.
Bob Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, laid out some of the basic arguments against banning felons from assistance in a blog post last year about Vitter's amendment.
"Ex-offenders often have difficulty finding jobs that pay decent wages," Greenstein wrote. "The amendment could pose dilemmas for ex-offenders who are trying to go straight but can neither find jobs nor, as a result of the amendment, obtain enough food to feed their children and families."
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