Delaware looks to end lifetime ban to public aid for those with drug convictions

    (File/WHYY)

    (File/WHYY)

    New legislation would lift a lifetime ban prohibiting Delawareans with drug convictions from receiving federal cash assistance.

    State Rep. David Bentz unveiled the measure earlier this week. House Bill 11 would unlock Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds, currently off limits to people previously convicted of a drug felony, like possession of marijuana.

    Delaware is one of just 10 states that blocks TANF funds from those with drug convictions for life. The federal cash assistance program helps low-income families with children primarily pay for things like electricity bills or school supplies.

    Under existing law, people convicted of other felonies are able to receive TANF cash assistance – drug-related offenses are the only ones that trigger the lifetime disqualification. Although the children of a mother convicted of a drug crime can still receive assistance, the family’s overall award is significantly reduced, and in practice this affects the well-being of families and children.

    “We as legislators have an obligation to continuously review past practices and policies and determine if they are working as intended. The vast majority of people who are going to prison will be returning home at some point. If we want them to be able to readjust to society, we need to have a support system for them,” said Rep. Bentz, D-Newark. “These are people who don’t have jobs yet and rely on their families to provide food and shelter in the early going. Our goal should be to prevent recidivism and give people the best possible chance to lead productive lives when released.”

    TANF funds are limited to 36 months, during which a person must work or participate in work-related activities for 30 hours per week, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services. To receive TANF funds, a person must actively seek and accept employment, cooperate with the Division of Child Support Services, sign an agreement that their children attend school and have up-to-date immunizations and attend parenting classes.

    The federal “War on Drugs” during the 1980s into the 90s led to policies penalizing drug offenders, by denying certain federal benefits. A 1996 federal law imposed the lifetime ban for those convicted of drug crimes, but gave states the ability to opt-out of the ban.

    The idea behind imposing such bans was to deter drug use, but research has shown that not only has this not worked, even those who were later informed of the punishment said that it “would not have acted as a deterrent during active addiction.”

    In its 2015 report, The Sentencing Project found that an estimated 2,000 women were affected by the TANF restrictions from 1996 to 2011. The report also showed that approximately 86 percent of TANF recipients were women.

    Rep. Bentz sponsored a similar bill during the last session of the General Assembly. It passed the House unanimously at the time, but was not considered by the full Senate before session ended.

    HB 11 will be assigned to the House Health & Human Development Committee. The General Assembly will reconvene on January 10, 2017.

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