For many people with felony drug convictions, finding a new life after serving time can be challenging. Aside from being denied basic rights such as the ability to vote, many of those with drug felonies in their background face difficulty feeding their children. Under federal rules governing the distribution of welfare money, those with drug-related convictions are denied these benefits.
But some legislators are trying to create an exemption for Virginia. Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-8) and Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34) are leading an effort in Richmond to allow those with drug convictions access to funding under a program known as Temporary Aid to Dependent Families. Their bill, SB 835, passed the Senate last week and has now been referred to the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions.
“People who are just coming out of prison are trying to get their lives together,” said Ticer between committee hearings last week. “And this is one way to help them out.”
According to an impact statement prepared by the Department of Planning and Budget, the cost to Virginia of expanding the TANF program to include applicants who were previously ineligible because they had committed drug-related felonies is about $125,000 the first year and $230,000 each year after that. According to an amendment to the bill when it was before the Senate Finance Committee, the bill would not become effective unless the General Assembly passes a special budget amendment to pay for it.
“I call that ‘the clause,’” said Ticer. “And it’s not like Santa Claus. It’s more like the Grinch that stole Christmas.”
DESPITE THE FUNDING battle that will surely emerge later in the session when legislators take up the budget, Ticer feels optimistic about the possibility that the General Assembly could pass an amendment to fund the initiative. She’s patroned similar measures in the past, and each has been defeated when “the clause” prompted a situation when lawmakers agreed with the idea but refused to fund it. Jean Auldridge, director of a prisoner advocacy group known as Virginia C.U.R.E. said the cost is well worth paying.
“We spend so much money putting people in prison, but we don’t spend nearly enough money on rehabilitation,” said Auldridge. “The truth is that people who are caught with drugs have a difficult time putting their lives back together.”
Social support programs commonly known as “welfare” were first created under President Franklin Roosevelt as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, which authorized a program known as “Aid to Families with Dependent Children.” After the 1992 presidential campaign, in which then-Gov. Bill Clinton campaigned on “ending welfare as we know it,” the program was reformed significantly. Aid to Families with Dependent Children was eliminated in 1996 in favor of a new program — Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The most drastic change was that the welfare program became temporary, with a five-year-lifetime limit.
“The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 stripped away the entitlement,” said John Horejsi, founder of a faith-based social justice advocacy group known as SALT. “Thirty-four other states have opted to restore TANF benefits to people with drug-related convictions, but Virginia has not.”
Horejsi said that he hopes legislators will see the merit in funding the program later in the session.
“It’s really not a big cost compared to building prisons,” said Horejsi. “If we funneled some of the money that we use to build prisons into helping those who have been released from prison, our recidivism rate would drop precipitously.”