A foolish ban on food aid is finally lifted

A foolish ban on food aid is finally lifted
A Vons grocery store in Pasadena (Los Angeles Times)

The Legislature on Monday enters the last week of its two-year session, making for a mix of emotions probably familiar to high school seniors. It's final exam time for the backers of all remaining legislative bills, which will pass or fail by the midnight before Labor Day. That means plenty of cramming, lots of coffee (and perhaps some libations of another sort) and some short tempers.

All Californians, in fact, have reason to be a little nervous, because legislative mischief can stealthily advance in the last-minute Sacramento crunch. It's a different vibe from earlier weeks, when bills plod their way through drafting, committee hearings and amendments at a slow enough pace that the folks who track such things can spotlight troubling provisions.


Budget season, which was earlier in the summer, is a junior version of legislative finals, a sort of mid-terms week, if you like. The budget can also produce some laws that pass far more quietly than those that go through the regular process.

The dust is still settling after this year's budget season, which produced much legislation that, in a pleasant turn of events, was good news. This page previously noted with approval, for example, the budget's rejiggering of the legal landscape in many criminal proceedings. Beginning Jan. 1, defendants who are sentenced for non-serious, non-violent felonies will presumptively be eligible for parole-like supervision after leaving jail. That's a big deal in Los Angeles County, where only a tiny fraction of such sentences have included a post-incarceration "tail" for felons who not long ago would have gone to state prison and been released on parole, but now do their time in county jail. This new law means that when they reenter society at the end of their terms, they will have some structured transition.

Taking stock of other changes in criminal justice that moved through the budget process, one item looms particularly large — in a good way. Californians saddled with drug felony convictions will now, finally, be able to navigate their return from prison or jail with the help of food stamps.

It's hard to overstate how important, and how belated, that change is for California.

The foolish lifetime ban on food assistance for convicted drug felons dates back to an act of Congress in 1996, when the war on drugs was in full swing and common sense and compassion were at a low point. Drug users and low-level dealers were so vilified that it was deemed necessary to continue their punishment even after they had served their time.

Of course, they weren't the only ones being punished. They returned desperate and hungry instead of aided by the most basic assistance that government provides to those in need or in transition: food. Instead of being customers in local grocery stores, they became clients of local soup kitchens — if they, and their neighbors, were lucky.

The deeper irony was that convicted murderers, rapists and other serious criminals did have access to food stamps as they transitioned back into their communities. But not those with drug convictions, many of whom, by the way, had served time for feeding addictions and ought to have been treated by public health departments rather than the criminal justice system.

Year after year, state lawmakers considered legislation to end the food stamp ban. Year after year they rejected it, persuaded to do so by prosecutors who saw their task as punishing addicts and low-level dealers. Meanwhile, many hungry former drug users, back in their communities, offended again and were arrested and imprisoned again, and no wonder. The state was bent on catching them, not on removing them from the cycle of despair.

A bill to lift the foolish ban came up last year — and failed. It was the most recent attempt. Until this year's budget process.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature approved millions of dollars for reentry and recidivism reduction programs and wisely included an end to the ban on CalFresh, or food stamps, for former drug felons.

It's a step lawmakers ought to have taken in the regular legislative process, but the important thing is that they found a way to get it done, and good for them. Let's hope the end-of-session week produces more such pleasant surprises, and holds the unpleasant ones to a minimum.

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