“I can buy a firearm, but I can’t get assistance to buy a sandwich”

SNAP2In a move that demonstrates a small—and too rare—step toward common sense in lawmaking, Missouri has rescinded [mostly] an 18-year-old law that banned people with felony drug convictions from ever receiving food stamps under the SNAP program. The new law is not a “get-out-of-jail-free,” though. It retains a one-year waiting period following a drug felon’s release from custody, and a third drug felony conviction would still trigger a lifetime ban. But those convicted of one or two drug felonies would be able to get food stamps under the SNAP program after a year, provided that they adhere to court orders regarding drug treatment programs.

The problem with the lifetime ban, argued proponents of the new, more humane approach, is that:

It turned safety net programs into a weapon in the drug war, adding a socioeconomic penalty to the criminal penalties the system imposes for drug crimes.

That approach fails to account for the realities of life in poverty, The Sentencing Project’s Director of Advocacy Nicole Porter said. “There has been a move to modify the ban ever since the 1990s in recognition that it was unfair to people who had already completed their sentence and were living in the community to deny them the ability to participate in the social safety net.” But “poor assumptions about people with prior convictions” have guided lawmakers in the handful of holdout states. The bans are “one way that people who are opposed to the safety net at all have been able to narrow the net and to marginalize people,” she said.

Relaxing the lifetime ban is a nod to the growing evidence that the war on drugs isn’t working. It also demonstrates that punishing poor people doesn’t help, either.

Calling the ban a “lifetime sentence,” The Sentencing Project notes that, when the national law—which gave states the ability to opt in or out—was enacted by Congress in 1996—with very little debate—the ban was intended to show that Congressional representatives were “tough on crime.”

As Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX), the sponsor of the amendment, argued, “If we are serious about our drug laws, we ought not to give people welfare benefits who are violating the Nation’s drug laws.”

Conspicuously absent from the brief debate over this provision was any discussion of whether the lifetime ban for individuals with felony drug offenses would advance the general objectives of welfare reform.

During this year’s Missouri hearings on the bill to lift the ban, people with prior drug convictions testified that the food-stamp ban has made it harder for people to climb out of poverty. Some also questioned its fairness, noting that the ban did not apply to convicted murders or sex offenders who are released from prison.

The old law resulted in some ludicrous situations, Think Progress reports:

Johnny Waller, who served five years decades ago for selling marijuana as a teenager, said, “I can go buy a firearm but I can’t get assistance to buy a sandwich

As is so often the case, Missouri is late to this remediating effort. Until Missouri Governor Nixon signed the new bill into law in June 2014, Missouri was one of nine states holding out for the punitive lifetime ban (Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming). The bans were imposed as part of welfare reform under President Clinton, but over the 18 years since they have been repealed in 16 states and modified in various ways by another 25.

The sponsor of the new law in Missouri, Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, said food assistance would reduce the chances that a person with a drug problem would relapse and return to prison. “I think it gives folks an opportunity to succeed.”

Not much encouraging comes out of the Republican-dominated Missouri state legislature these days, so this development is refreshing. I doubt that this law passed for purely humanitarian reasons. I’m guessing that legislators just decided that Missouri shouldn’t be—once again—left behind and viewed as a backward state—that’s not good for business, after all. But whatever the reason, this is a small step in a better direction. And in Missouri, that’s newsworthy.