Pennsylvania residents convicted of felony drug crimes could be denied food by the state after completing their prison sentences, under a Republican-sponsored bill that advocates say is both mean spirited and counter productive.
The back story: in 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), fulfilling his promise during his State of the Union address to “end welfare as we know it.” The law enacted expansive reforms on federal cash assistance and food stamp programs and created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), called welfare and food stamps, respectively.
The reform law also instituted a number of new limits on who qualifies for those benefit programs, among them a provision banning people convicted of felony drug crimes from receiving cash or food assistance. The lifetime denial of federal benefits was imposed for no other felony crimes but drug offenses.
When it was introduced, the felony drug ban was unanimously approved after receiving two minutes of floor debate by the Senate.
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Pennsylvania opted out of the ban in 2003, with the state senate voting unanimously for its repeal, allowing people to receive benefits after they’ve completed their sentence.
“The ban on benefits is counterproductive,” Amy E. Hirsch, an attorney who studied effects of the ban on women with felony drug convictions during the years it the law was in effect in the state, said during testimony in 2001 to repeal the ban. “It does not deter drug usage or crimes, but instead makes it much harder for women to stay clean and sober.”
Since 1996, 13 states have a lifetime ban cash assistance for felony drug offenders, and nine have banned SNAP assistance as well. Most other states have modified bans that allow people to receive benefits under certain circumstances, according to the Sentencing Project.
Despite years of widespread and bipartisan agreement that the federal ban needed to go, the Pennsylvania legislature is now considering whether to opt back into it.
State Rep. Mike Regan (R), a former U.S. Marshal and the author of HB 222, which would reinstate the ban, is framing the need to bar drug convicts from cash and food assistance as a necessary step towards taking down high-level drug traffickers.
“During my time in federal law enforcement, many individuals were arrested for drug trafficking crimes, found to have large sums of money and were receiving welfare benefits,” Regan said in a press release. “This is unfair to our residents who are in true need of assistance. This legislation should aid in preventing benefits from falling into the wrong hands.”
But Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney for the Pennsylvania-based Women’s Law Project, is highly suspicious of that logic.
“What drug kingpin needs public benefits? This bill is targeting the wrong people,” she told Rewire.
In Pennsylvania, “possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance,” which can mean sharing drugs with another person, is a felony charge.
Women, who make up the large majority of both SNAP and TANF beneficiaries, are also the ones mostly affected by the federal ban. In 2011, 25 percent of women in state prisons had been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 16 percent of men, according to the Sentencing Project. And Black women, who are charged with drug crimes at higher rates than their white counterparts despite comparable usage, are particularly burdened by the ban.
For women who have completed a sentence, being denied cash and food assistance is a significant barrier to success after incarceration, advocates said.
“Denying them food, clothing, and shelter makes it much more difficult for them to support themselves as they leave the criminal justice system and reenter society, and much more likely that they will return to criminal activity and drug use instead of attaining sobriety and gainful employment,” according to the New York-based Legal Action Center.
“You’re pushing them back into addiction,” Frietsche said. “And you’re stigmatizing them as not worthy as participating in the same systems that others do. And this is after you’ve punished them for the crime.”
The maximum amount of cash assistance a person in Pennsylvania can receive hasn’t increased since 1990, Frietsche said. “Not a penny. What we do for people in profound poverty is very little.”