Have A Felony Drug Conviction? No Food For You

frankie-620x411On 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 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 has made it virtually impossible to find even an entry-level job, and she can’t feed her children because she has no money and is not eligible for food stamps. Is it because she’s a felon? Not exactly. If Carla were a murderer or a rapist, 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.

32 states ban people with drug felony convictions from receiving food stamps. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that nine 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.

Carla is one of thousands of former convicted drug offenders who suffer because of a 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 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. I’m sure that it does happen, but most people use their food stamp funds to buy food for themselves and their families.

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 against 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, the majority do not.

Representatives 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 is “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.”

It has a two percent chance of getting past committee, and a zero percent chance of being enacted (source: govtrack.us).

Dr. 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 not having access to resources increases the recidivism rate. Denying basic resources such as food stamps is an ineffective strategy for controlling crime. If I were a gambler, I’d bet that no one who commits a crime stops to think, “Wait. If I commit this crime, and get caught, and go to prison, I won’t be able to get food stamps when I get out.” What happens too often is that the newly released individual is virtually forced to return to crime. If this statement (mine) causes any indignation, I welcome your proposed solutions in the comments section of this article.

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. “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.”


The text of Dr. Wang’s article can be viewed in its entirety on AlterNet.

Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Barbara Lee’s Twitter accounts are @RepBarbaraLee and @RosaDelauro. You can also contact your representatives in Congress and demand that they revisit the Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act of 2011.

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