Monday's U.S. Supreme Court order that California must release tens of thousands of inmates from its unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons brings new urgency to a bill to make nonviolent drug ex-cons eligible for food stamps, Assemblyman Sandre Swanson says.
Swanson, D-Alameda, is the author of AB 828, the Nutritional Assistance for Families Act, which would let people convicted of certain nonviolent, drug-related felonies receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Federal law bars certain former offenders from receiving such benefits, but lets states opt out of the ban; 14 states have eliminated the ban entirely, and 21 have modified it.
The Assembly voted 46-30 Monday to pass Swanson's bill; it now goes to the state Senate.
"Nearly 46,000 prisoners will soon be released into our communities," Swanson said in a news release. "Whether you are happy with this or not, the fact is that the state is about to absorb a huge population of ex-felons and we must be realistic about how to support them and their families as they attempt to transition back into society. If a person's most critical needs are not met when they re-enter society after serving time in prison, they won't have the tools necessary for a successful and safe return. Without basic support, such as food, many of them will return to criminal activity and drug use instead of gainful employment and sobriety."
"I understand being hard on crime. I stand behind stricter penalties and fines for criminals. However, once a person has successfully served his sentence, he should have tools available to successfully redintegrate."
Swanson noted California's recidivism rate is at 70 percent, the nation's highest, and most Californians would prefer their tax dollars support education and job creation rather than housing and rehousing the same inmates over and over again. Keeping the ban in place means leaving federal money on the table that would support agriculture, boost sales tax revenue, reduce recidivism and help families in need.
"Economists estimate that for every dollar of SNAP funds spent, the local economy receives $1.75 in return," Swanson said. "During these times of unprecedented program cuts and joblessness, we cannot leave federal dollars on the table that would ultimately help stimulate our economy and increase public safety by helping communities safely absorb the 46,000 prisoners who may end up living as our neighbors."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two similar bills by Swanson in 2007 and 2008. In the latter veto message, the governor wrote that "extending food stamp eligibility to drug dealers or traffickers, upon the condition that they engage in drug treatment, will not ensure these individuals will stop selling or trafficking illegal drugs. Therefore, this bill does not provide a targeted approach to the right population and does not ensure adequate public safety protections."
Swanson tried again last year, but the bill never made it to a state Senate floor vote. As the Assembly approved it last May, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine -- then a GOP primary candidate for U.S. Senate -- blasted the idea.
"(G)iving felony-level drug dealers government funds with no strings attached undermines the very concept of holding them accountable for their actions," DeVore said at the time. "With just 12 percent of the nation's population residing here, California is home to 32 percent of the welfare recipients in the United States. We should be encouraging Californians to become self-reliant, not enlarging the welfare rolls with convicted felons. Each dollar given to drug felons is a dollar that could go to an out of work family with children to care for."