The California Assembly voted May 24 to approve a bill that would let people convicted of drug possession receive food stamps. Under the 1996 federal welfare reform act, drug felons are not eligible to receive federally-linked assistance, but that law contains an opt-out provision for the states. So far, 32 other states have opted to provide benefits to people convicted of drug possession, while 12 others voted to provide benefits to all drug offenders, including those charged with drug sales or manufacture.
"Denying public assistance means families headed by former offenders will have less money for food and less of a chance to rebuild their lives," said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who wrote the measure, during debate on the bill. Leno and other supporters of the measure pointed to the passage of Proposition 36 in 2000, which allows first-time drug offenders to get treatment instead of jail, as evidence that Californians were ready to be less punitive toward drug offenders.
Bill supporters also pointed out that the current law singles out drug offenders for extra punishment because it does not bar assistance to people convicted of violent crimes. And being able to get food stamps could help people seeking treatment. "The food stamps help pay for the food costs while they are in treatment," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles). "Those of us who want to help people who are in treatment really ought to be supporting this."
It wasn't just bleeding heart liberals who supported the bill. The California Police Chiefs Association also endorsed it, arguing that "preventing an otherwise eligible person from receiving food stamps because of a prior drug conviction makes little sense and merely increases the chances that they will fall back into re-offending behavior."
According to state welfare officials, about 1,640 people are denied food stamps each year under the current law. Those people are losers and don't deserve food stamps, said Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta). "It's appropriate to say as a society we are not going to subsidize your addiction," said Haynes. "The welfare benefits are not going to help them get off drugs," he added.
But two members of his party joined a solid Democratic bloc to pass the bill. With a 42-27 margin, the bill passed by one vote. Now it heads to the state Senate.
Read the bill, AB1796, online at: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/postquery?bill_number=ab_1796&sess=CUR&house=B&author=leno