Rick Wilson: End the ban from SNAP for felony drug offenders

Some things that seem like a good idea at the time really aren’t.

Or, if you want to get biblical about it, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, the end thereof are the ways of death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

As is the case with most individuals, I think the U.S. has taken a wrong turn or two over the course of its history. One example that comes to mind is Prohibition, the nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages that lasted from 1920 to 1933.

It didn’t stop the drinking (there were memories of “bathtub gin” in my family), but it was the best thing that ever happened to organized crime.

The “war on drugs” was another such misstep. While it may have given some politicians a racially tinged road to power, it devastated many communities, destroyed many lives and sucked up untold resources. Without getting rid of drugs.

Fortunately, it looks like more people across the political spectrum are beginning to question the policies of over-incarceration and of criminalizing public health problems.

There seems to be a growing awareness that punishment isn’t the best way to deal with addiction, and of the fact that the vast majority of people who get sucked into the prison-industrial complex are going to come out some day.

There is a growing interest in issues of recovery and re-entry, probably because the opioid crisis has touched so many families.

With both Democratic and Republican legislative majorities, West Virginia has taken some steps in a positive direction:

  • In 2013, the Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which aimed at reducing incarceration rates while protecting public safety.
  • The same year, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which opened the gates of treatment and recovery for thousands of West Virginians dealing with addiction issues.
  • In 2015, the Republican-led Legislature passed reforms in truancy and juvenile justice aimed at reducing the number of children kept in out-of-home confinement.
  • In 2016, the Legislature passed a bill aimed at making it easier for people to regain driver’s licenses.
  • In 2017, the Legislature passed the Second Chance for Employment Act, which allows people with nonviolent felony convictions to petition the courts to have the offense reduced to a misdemeanor.

Some of these steps could have been strengthened, but the trend shows movement in the right direction.

One big step West Virginia needs to take is to remove the lifetime ban on SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) for people with felony drug convictions.

That arbitrary ban — which doesn’t apply to any other category of offender — is an ill-thought-out legacy of 1990s federal welfare reform legislation.

According to Marc Mauer, of the D.C.-based Sentencing Project, that measure received about two minutes of debate at the time it was passed.

It shows.

Since then, all but three states, including some of the most conservative, have modified or removed the ban.

Guess who’s one of the three? The others are South Carolina and Mississippi.

As Elizabeth Lower-Basch, of the Center for Law and Social Policy, put it: “I think most states have, over time, recognized this isn’t helpful for the goal of reducing drug use.”

According to a report by Molly Born, of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, in 2016, more than 2,100 people with felony drug convictions were denied SNAP benefits after they had served their time. That number doesn’t include people who didn’t bother to apply at all or those who were denied in other years.

An analysis of overdose fatalities in 2016 found that 56 percent of those who died from overdoses had been incarcerated. Further, “Of male decedents that were incarcerated within 12 months of death, 28% died within a month after release, compared to 21% of females. Nearly half, (46%) of individuals with only some high school education died within 30 days of their release.”

To state the obvious, when people have served their time for drug convictions, they often have little or no assets. Jobs are hard to find. Family and community connections may have eroded over time. Relapse is a possibility, especially if there seems to be no hope.

And they still need to eat.

The road to recovery is hard, but we have a lot of people on it. They don’t need another roadblock.

It’s time to end the ban.