Even once they are no longer in the criminal justice system, Pennsylvania felony drug convicts may become ineligible for government assistance under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, making good on his promise, as he put it in his State of the Union address, to “end welfare as we know it.” The law made expansive reforms on the public welfare programs, among them a provision that banned those convicted of a felony drug crime from receiving cash or food assistance.
The provision was unanimously approved in the Senate and was only debated on the floor for two minutes.
Pennsylvania opted out of the ban in 2003. The state also voted unanimously for its repeal.
According to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, 13 states have a full ban on TANF for drug convicts, while 24 have a partial ban and 13 have none. For SNAP, 9 states have a complete ban, 25 have modified bans and 16 have none.
Modified bans alter the norm in different ways. Some by allowing individuals with felony conditions to receive benefits if the drugs were for personal use, other states require completion of drug treatments or drug testing.
“The ban on benefits is counterproductive,” said Amy E. Hirsch during a 2001 testimony to repel the ban. Hirsch is an attorney who studied effects of the ban on women while the law was in effect in Pennsylvania. “It does not deter drug usage or crimes. But instead makes it much harder for women to stay clean and sober.”
State Rep. Mike Regan, a Republican and former U.S. Marshall who authored the bill, said in a press release, “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.” He continued, “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.”
Senior staff attorney Sue Frietsche for the Pennsylvania-based Women’s Law Project thinks it’s the wrong approach. “What drug kingpin needs public benefits? This bill is targeting the wrong people,” she told RH Reality Check.
“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.”
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