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Bill to bar convicted drug dealers from Pa. benefits inspires worry of recidivism

A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania House last week would bar anyone convicted of dealing drugs from receiving state benefits.

Prisoner advocates are taking issue with a proposal, saying that would make it harder for people during the difficult period when they return from incarceration.

The sponsor of House Bill 2413, Rep. Mike Regan, said his proposal came from his 23 years with for the U.S. Marshals Service, pursuing drug traffickers.

“Many times upon an arrest, we would find large sums of money, wads of cash and also indications that the person we arrested was receiving welfare benefits,” Regan said, in the form of food stamps or an electronic benefits card.

Regan said that because the state has limited resources, help should go to those who most need and deserve it. His bill would make those convicted of drug trafficking ineligible for food stamps and for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, among other programs.

While time is short in this year’s legislative session and Regan’s bill was only just referred to the House Health Committee, he says he’ll introduce it again and that he has bipartisan support.

The head of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, Ann Schwartzman, said that, “although [the proposal] sounds cut and dried and nobody wants to have welfare cheats and nobody wants to see anyone get off easy, I think we really have to think through what the consequences might look like.”

She compared social safety net programs to a bridge back to a normal life.

Hannah Zellman, the director of Philadelphia FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice, said people will often depend on public benefits during what’s often a long search for an employer who will look past their criminal record.

“It can be quite literally the difference between somebody being able to sort of create a different life for themselves instead of going back to the things that landed them in prison or jail in the first place,” she said.

Regan, who said his colleagues in Harrisburg have made the same argument, said he’s not necessarily opposed to a path to get benefits reinstated, as long as it’s a difficult one.

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