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Repealing the lifetime ban on CalFresh and CalWORKs for people with drug felony convictions – Where do we go from here?

February 3, 2015

By Endria Richardson

Last year, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) and All of Us Or None (AOUON) joined the Western Center for Law and Poverty and a broad-based coalition of 140 organizations to repeal the lifetime ban on CalFresh (food stamps) and CalWORKs (basic needs support and job training) for people with drug-related felony convictions – a reform that has been a long time coming. Effective April 1, 2015, no person will be deemed ineligible for either CalFresh or CalWORKs aid because they have a prior federal or state felony drug conviction.

Endria Richardson

Endria Richardson

The ban was originally passed as part of President Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, an expansive and politically conservative reform of the federal welfare system. The ban singled out people with any felony drug conviction as being presumptively ineligible to receive federal benefits, casting people who use, abuse or sell drugs as morally reprehensible and unworthy of aid. A congressperson who sponsored the ban called for “a higher standard of behavior of people on welfare.”

Organizations in California, including LSPC and AOUON, fought against the drug felony ban over two decades by reframing the argument: Enabling people to pay rent, put food on their table and find sustainable employment – more than paternalistic moralizing – would promote stability within families and decrease recidivism, helping people to return home for good.

This strategy has helped to bring the criminalization of substance use – and the demonization of people who use or abuse substances – under scrutiny, resulting in concrete changes to help people with drug-related felony convictions in California return home from prison and jail. Along with ending the lifetime ban on state and federal assistance for people with drug-related felony convictions, California has legalized medical marijuana, greatly increased access to treatment programs over incarceration, eliminated the sentencing disparity between cocaine base (crack) and cocaine powder, and changed all simple drug possession to misdemeanors.

Effective April 1, 2015, no person will be deemed ineligible for either CalFresh or CalWORKs aid because they have a prior federal or state felony drug conviction.

Now that we seem to be well on our way towards recognizing the complex motivators behind substance use and abuse – and changing our laws to reflect this – how can we continue to use this momentum to change the narrative we tell about other complex behavior and conviction histories and reduce the penalties and collateral consequences associated with them? For example, repealing other blanket bans to programs and resources for people with serious or violent convictions – including access to professional licensing, Alternative Custody Programs and Victim Compensation Funds.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children will continue to work towards promoting healthy communities for everyone, and we look forward to the day when we all have access to housing, food, education and employment.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children will continue to work towards promoting healthy communities for everyone, and we look forward to the day when we all have access to housing, food, education and employment.

In the meantime, please help us spread the word about the change in the law by sharing the below information with your families, friends, and communities:

How to access your benefits

CalWORKs: To claim your CalWORKs benefits, you may need to apply (if you have not already applied or do not belong to a household that has already applied). You can apply online at http://www.benefitscal.org or in person at your County Welfare Department (CWD) – you can find yours by looking under the County Government section of your phonebook.

If you or your household also receive CalFresh benefits, the amount of those benefits may be decreased due to the increase in your CalWORKs grant.

CalFresh: Any previously excluded household member who becomes eligible for CalFresh benefits as a result of this statute will become included as a household member as of April 1, 2015. Households that apply with a member who is currently ineligible due to a prior drug felony conviction shall be approved for benefits minus the member with a previous felony drug conviction, who shall then be added effective April 1, 2015. The household shall not be required to request the previously excluded person to be added.

A household consisting entirely of individuals with a previous felony drug conviction shall be approved effective April 1, 2015.

Verification of parole or probation status: Applicants and recipients with prior felony drug convictions must be in compliance with the terms of their parole or probation in order to be eligible to receive CalWORKs or CalFresh benefits.

Endria Richardson is a legal fellow at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. She can be reached at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102, 415-255-7036, www.prisonerswithchildren.org or info@prisonerswithchildren.org.

3 thoughts on “Repealing the lifetime ban on CalFresh and CalWORKs for people with drug felony convictions – Where do we go from here?

  1. Onix

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