Tonight's State of the Union Should Also Offer Economic Opportunity for People With Drug Law Felonies

Tonight, President Obama will address the nation with his annual State of the Union address. He is likely to discuss economic inequality, America's defining challenge of our time.

With more than 46 million Americans living below the poverty line and with the middle class "hollowing out," President Obama has his work cut out for him. It has been reported that he will be delivering an "optimistic" message, urging Congress to address economic mobility and income inequality. Senior White House adviser, Dan Pffeifer wrote that Obama "will lay out a set of real, concrete, practical proposals to grow the economy, strengthen the middle class, and empower all who hope to join it."

I wonder if he would include the tens of millions of people convicted of drug law violations in the list of "all who hope to join it"?

As it stands today, felony drug offenders face significant obstacles to joining the economy. They face hardships finding jobs as they are forced to "check the box" on job applications, in certain states they face lifetime public housing bans, and most states have some kind of food stamp restrictions whether it be outright bans or required drug testing to qualify. Regardless of the intentions, these policies have had an adverse effect. They have created onerous barriers to re-entry into normal society resulting in a recidivism rate of nearly two-thirds.

Let's start with the issue of banning food stamps. This practice was defended by Congressman Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina) as allowing "the states to ensure addicts and criminals are not taking food out of the mouths of hungry children." Yet what happens when a mother is convicted of a drug offense and upon returning home from prison is not afforded food stamps to help pay for food for herself or her hungry children? In many cases these women are faced with the option of either a homeless shelter or back to the streets where they risk being sent back to prison. After all, the chance of her getting a job to pay for food lawfully is slim due to the fact that she will be applying to all of her jobs as a "felon." In today's economy especially, the chance of her getting a job is highly unlikely. As a result not only will she go hungry but so will her children. Should we really support laws that have such deleterious effects - laws that take food out of the mouths of hungry children?

Nonviolent drug offenders who have served their time should not come out only to face further punishments on the outside. We need to support common sense re-entry policies that make it easier for non-violent drug offenders to assimilate back into normal society. We need to provide second chances for those who have served their time. Not only is it the right thing to do but it's also good policy. Our current policies only serve to trap people in a vicious cycle of repeat offending.

According to the White House website, "the Administration's National Drug Control Strategy supports comprehensive change within the criminal justice system, promoting a combined public health/public safety approach to stop the all-too-common cycle of arrest, incarceration, release, and re-arrest." Let's amend our laws and create "a set of real, concrete, practical proposals" that will allow nonviolent drug offenders to join/rejoin our economy. Let's empower all who hope to join this economy.

Alexsandra Smith is an intern with The Drug Policy Alliance.