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Clearing the Path Ahead: One Step Towards Improving Reentry in California

Last month, California passed a $156.4 billion budget, which included a provision that lifts the lifetime ban on CalWORKS (welfare) and CalFresh (food stamps) for people with felony drug convictions. This victory for criminal justice and drug policy reform comes amid the growing national sentiment that compassion and treatment are better approaches to drug issues in society than incarceration. While the consensus may be building, there remain many obstacles to reentry for people with drug felonies on their record.

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The ban on government benefits for people with felony drug convictions originated with the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) — also known as “welfare reform” — signed by former President Bill Clinton. The national dialogue at the time focused on a perceived abundance of “welfare queens” who were purportedly freeloading off assistance programs. In response, a concerted effort was made to disallow anyone perceived as irresponsible or unworthy from receiving welfare benefits. The fact that rape, murder, and other violent crimes were omitted from such an extreme ban on temporary and supplemental assistance for the disadvantaged points to the Drug-War-fueled motives of this legislation.

Fortunately, there is a provision of the PRWORA that allows states to modify or opt out of the ban, and many states have already done so. California’s move to lift the ban on government assistance signals an acknowledgement that denying assistance to people who have served their sentences is not only unjust, it is counter-productive.

Ending the ban is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, yet many obstacles remain for people with drug felonies on their record. A drug conviction can prevent access to employment, student loans, and housing — all essential factors for rebuilding one’s life after incarceration. Removing access to such basic foundations greatly reduces a formerly incarcerated person’s ability to reintegrate in society, and thereby increases the likelihood of recidivism.

It is also important to note that such punitive restrictions on social services disproportionately affect people of color. While drug use is fairly consistent across racial demographics, the vast majority of people arrested for drug offenses are people of color. These policies entrap African American and Latino communities in the criminal justice system: As a result of being more likely to be arrested and go to prison, people in these communities are subsequently more likely to be denied housing, employment, services, education, and other factors that would allow them to reestablish their lives.

It has become abundantly clear that incarceration does not reduce crime. Similarly, preventing formerly incarcerated people from accessing necessities like employment, education, and welfare assistance does nothing to help them reintegrate into society. Former President George W. Bush once said, “America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” California has taken a laudable step towards clearing the path ahead for formerly incarcerated people, but let us not forget that many obstacles remain. We must continue to strengthen their second chance at success.

Keywords: drug policy, reentry

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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