Dec. 12 2012 09:29 AM

Behind the effort to remove the ban against drug offenders

Larry Harvey was surprised to find out that a 2001 drug-sales conviction has disqualified him for life from receiving food stamps.
Photo by Kelly Davis

Larry Harvey admits that he screwed up. He was 21 and just out of the Navy when he got caught up in the Detroit club scene and the drugs that came with it. A few years later, he was arrested for selling ecstasy and ketamine.

"You get wrapped up in it so easily," he says. "You've got all this money coming in, you've got all of these, quote, friends around, and you don't have to work. It was one little bit, one little bit, and before I knew it, I was full-blown selling it."

That was more than a decade ago, and he did two years in prison. A recent transplant to San Diego, he's now struggling to find work—he's applied for more than 50 jobs, he guesses—and has run out of money. To be less of a burden on the friends who've agreed to put him up until he finds a job, he applied for CalFresh—California's name for the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps.

"I was holding off as long as I could to do something like this," Harvey says. "I thought, I'm young enough that I should be able to figure something out, but it had gotten to the point… I didn't want to become a financial burden on my friends. I kind of waited until the last minute. I'm definitely not one of those people who wants a handout. That's not the way I was raised. But you get yourself in a jam."

Last month, Harvey spent two hours at one of San Diego County's welfare offices before being called in for an interview with a caseworker, during which he was told that his felony drug-sales conviction would disqualify him.

Such a ban wasn't always in place. In 1996, U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, a Republican from Texas, slipped a last-minute amendment into the federal welfare-reform bill that said anyone convicted of any felony drug offense after Aug. 22, 1996, would be barred for life from receiving food stamps. States, however, can pass laws to opt out of the ban or amend it; 35 states have done so. A 2005 California law said that anyone convicted of drug possession could apply for CalFresh as long as they enrolled in a drug-treatment program, but someone with a felony sales-related conviction would still be ineligible.

Jennifer Tracy, executive director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, says this has resulted in confusion among caseworkers.

"We have countless people who were denied even though they should have been eligible," she says. "It's really time-consuming for [caseworkers] to figure out what the specific conviction was for… then take that [information] to their database and figure out which convictions count and which ones don't."

The lack of a time-cap on the restriction is also a problem.

"There was an elderly man who 15 years ago had been convicted and hadn't had any problems since then," Tracy says. "He was in need of help and wasn't eligible."

Every year from 2007 to 2011, state Assemblymember Sandre Swanson, a Democrat from Oakland, tried to get a full repeal of the ban, via five different bills. The first two versions made it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk but were vetoed. The three later versions all died in the Senate Appropriations Committee. At a hearing before that committee last year, Swanson argued that the bill should be regarded as part of a comprehensive plan to help people transition from prison back to the community.

"Given the orders California's under"—to reduce prison overcrowding—"and the crisis that's facing us in our prison system, we have to develop a successful reentry strategy. Food, nutrition is basic to that effort," Swanson said.

But the legislation would've cost money. The Appropriations Committee—which assesses whether a law would burden the state's general fund—voted each time to put the bill on hold, even though its exact cost was tough to pin down. While the federal government covers the cost of the actual food stamps, (capped at $200 a month for a single person), administrative costs are split between the feds, who pay half, the state (35 percent) and counties (15 percent). Since the legislation was considered to be a local mandate, the state would have to pick up the counties' 15-percent administrative cost.

Mike Herald, a legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which co-sponsored Swanson's bills, said they estimated it would add, at most, 10,000 new people to the CalFresh program.

"So, in the bad budget years, adding 8,000 to 10,000 new food-stamp cases, for example, to the rolls would have had a cost to the state. Probably relatively nominal in big budget terms—easily less than a million bucks. But in bad budget years," he says, "trying to expand a program cost… was just not happening."

Advocates argued that a more streamlined application process would offset some of the additional costs— caseworkers wouldn't have to check a person's criminal history—and the state would benefit from an increase in sales-tax revenue.

"There is a multiplier effect," Herald says. "The state actually gets increased revenue because when people get CalFresh funds, that means they can spend more of their real dollars on taxable items. But, still, at the end of the day, it's going to cost the state a little bit of money to let people on."

Thad Kousser, a political-science professor at UCSD, wonders if it was truly cost issues that caused the Appropriations Committee to suspend Swanson's bills. All three years the legislation was held up, Christine Kehoe, a Democrat from San Diego, chaired the committee.

"They're the sticklers," Kousser says of the committee. "They're the people who are going to say, ‘Look, we know that this much money is going out; OK, maybe that frees them up to spend their other money on things that they're going to pay sales tax on, but that's uncertain. We're going to stick to the certain costs rather than the uncertain benefits."

But politics also come into play, Kousser says. 

"In a time when you're dramatically cutting all areas of government, to be expanding government for people who have been convicted of drug-sales crimes? It could be really unpopular. And so, this is something where the Legislature may be using this mechanism of the Appropriations Committee to take a real tough vote off of the floor…. It'll come back to haunt you on a mailer if you're voting for more money for drug dealers while you're raising the cost of higher education."

Neither Kehoe nor Swanson, who were both termed out of office this year, responded to interview requests.

Advocates plan to try again in 2013 to lift the lifetime ban, Herald says, adding that he believes the state's prison-realignment efforts—under which lower-level criminals, including drug offenders, are sent to county jail instead of prison—might push legislators to support programs that help people get back on their feet.

"We've always argued that it's a lot more expensive for folks to go back into the corrections system because they didn't have enough money to feed themselves or stay housed and they do something that they shouldn't do to overcome that," he says. "I think giving people a small amount of federal dollars to hopefully prevent that is a small price for us to pay and probably, frankly, saves us money in the long run by not having people re-offend."

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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