Georgia lifts food stamp ban on drug offenders

Every time Norvell Lawhorne applied for food stamps, he was turned down because he was a convicted drug felon. That conviction has made it harder to find a job, housing and even food. He now makes his bed in an Atlanta homeless shelter.

He’s excited that Gov. Nathan Deal plans to sign a bill Wednesday to lift the lifetime ban on food stamps for convicted drug felons. He believes it will give him a chance to get back on his feet.

“It’s excellent news for me,” said Lawhorne, 54, who says he was was convicted of possession of cocaine a few years ago and served about six months. “It will help me with food. I won’t have to wait on lines for the churches to feed me.”

Georgia was among the last handful of states using the lifetime ban adopted by the federal government in 1996. The federal government allows states to bow out of the ban and many already have. The Georgia measure is among a series of proposals by Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Deal is expected to sign a package of those proposals Wednesday, which also include changes to allow first-time offenders a chance to seal their court records.

The food stamp measure reflects the changing mindset in recent years regarding the harsh punishments on nonviolent drug offenses. Georgia is among numerous states who have lessened penalties, due to new thoughts on rehabilitating criminals and the great costs of housing a multitude of such prisoners.

The measure even received a nod from the president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

“I do believe that if people have served their sentence, they should be able to re-integrate into society,” Kelly McCutchen said.

Still, McCutchen worries that some of these offenders could start collecting food stamps and not work at becoming productive citizens.

“Any government welfare program should focus on temporary assistance, and should have work requirements attached to it,” he said.

Already, there have been efforts in Georgia to put in place work mandates for able-bodied food stamp recipients.

Thomas Worthy, co-chair of criminal justice reform council, said the old food stamp law was passed as part of a “get-tough-on-crime, three-strikes-your-out mentality.” But more recent studies show that mentality doesn’t work. Granting these offender access to food stamps will help them re-integrate into society, he said, and help them avoid landing back behind bars.

The change could help some 6,600 Georgians rejected each year for food stamps because they are convicted drug felons, according to research by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. That could mean an additional $10.4 million dollars in federal dollars coming to Georgia’s food stamp program. Food stamps are funded with federal money.

Drug offenders were held to an unfair standard under the law, social service advocates say. They noted that people convicted of robbery, burglary or murder can collect food stamps, so long as they abide by their parole or probation conditions.

Lawhorne said, “You got all these people out here able to get food stamps, and they’ve been charged with worse crimes.”

The food stamp measure sailed through the state General Assembly with hardly any opposition. It has been endorsed by the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia.

Having access to food is an important first step for a person emerging from incarceration, said Marissa Dodson of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Without food stamps, they can become a burden on family, and even fall back into crime or old drug habits.

Having food stamps, Lawhorne said, “will give me something I can contribute if I move in with someone. It will help me with food. … That will be beautiful.”

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