Food aid for former drug offenders

On their release from prison or jail, inmates can return to their communities with transitional assistance to keep them fed while they look for work — or they can return desperate and hungry. Which circumstance is more likely to keep the neighborhood safe?

In its wisdom, or what passed for it at the time, Congress in 1996 banned anyone convicted of a drug-related offense from ever getting food stamps. People convicted of rape, murder or armed robbery were eligible for food aid, but not former drug offenders. It was the height of the war on drugs, and lawmakers were bent on punishing addicts and dealers.

The foolishness of this lifetime prohibition quickly became apparent. Federal administrators allowed states to alter it or opt out altogether, and most quickly did so. It took California until 2004 to partially end the ban on benefits for drug offenders through CalFresh — the local program for getting federal food aid to the needy — but it was kept intact for any offender whose conviction went beyond simple possession. Because addicts often engage in low-level dealing to pay for their habits, many drug offenders here continue to return to the streets after doing their jail or prison time, with no legal way to feed themselves or their families. They remain desperate and hungry. Local grocery stores remain unpaid. Neighbors remain uneasy.


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It’s time to end this destructive policy. State lawmakers have before them a bill that would end the lifetime CalFresh ban for drug offenders who comply with the conditions of their parole or probation, including participation in a drug rehab program. SB 283 has cleared the Senate and is shortly to be heard by the Assembly’s Human Services Committee. It should be adopted and sent to the governor for his signature.

Opponents continue to worry that drug offenders will sell their food credits to feed their habits instead of their families. But the requirement to abide by the terms of release, especially participation in rehab programs, goes a long way to address that concern. Plus, despite the devout belief to the contrary by some members of the public, there is scant evidence that Californians who get assistance through their EBT cards (no one actually uses “stamps” anymore, although aid is still commonly called “food stamps”) engage in fraud.

And besides, it’s worth noting that ex-offenders whose crimes actually included fraud, and who thus might be more prone than most to abuse their card privileges, are nevertheless eligible for food aid. The ban on CalFresh benefits for drug offenders is an unfair and unwise relic from an era of anti-drug frenzy. It should be repealed.