Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 27, 2013

Some say Michigan's food stamp restrictions for drug felons are unfair

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Jason Beasley said he’s made many personal changes since he was convicted of possessing cocaine in 2003.

The Manistee resident who formerly hustled drugs in seven states is now clipping coupons for the first time.

After prison, he searched for two years before securing a part-time job. He’s relies on $200 a month in Bridge Card benefits to help put food on his table.

Beasley hasn’t sold drugs since the conviction, he said. Yet he knows that falling back into his addiction and getting “back into the game” would be as easy as making one phone call.

If he does, a second drug felony conviction would permanently strip him of food assistance benefits, according to state law.

“I get this $200 taken from me and I’m only working part-time, how am I going to feed myself and pay my bills? I’m not going to be able to. That puts me in a bind,” he said.

Drug felons under certain circumstances are banned from the Department of Human Service’s food assistance and family independence programs. The food assistance program provides low-income people with monthly benefits toward groceries, and the latter provides financial assistance to families with children.

People convicted of a felony for use, possession or distribution of a controlled substance after August 1996 are disqualified if they violate probation or parole. Ex-cons with two drug felonies over separate time periods are permanently disqualified.

”It’d be an atrocity if somebody makes a mistake, not even selling drugs but getting a (second) drug conviction because they’re still active using and they get their food stamps taken,” said Beasley, who thinks many felons aren’t aware of the law until they’re shut out from assistance.

Fugitives, parole violators and people convicted of fraudulently receiving state aid also are restricted, but other types of felony convictions don’t hinder eligibility.

The federal welfare law of 1996 laid the groundwork by permanently banning drug felons from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. States can opt out of or modify the law, and Michigan is among 19 states that take an amended approach, according to the USDA.

The issue makes Rev. Jim Holwerda’s blood boil. The chaplain to the Father Fred Foundation worked with felons through addiction treatment programs and doesn’t understand why people who commit drug crimes are singled out.

”Prison time makes sense. Parole makes sense,” Holwerda said. “But then to continue the punishment with these collateral consequences, that’s what makes no sense.”

Seeking employment and housing after prison already is a burden for those who want to reintegrate into the community, he said, and the additional barrier seems “diabolical.” He thinks the law undermines the idea that change is a process for recovering addicts.

”Carrying out that change, that’s the true challenge and that’s where people need assistance,” Holwerda said. “So if there are unnecessary obstacles in the path of somebody carrying out that decision, I think that we’re just driving people back into the old life that they are wanting to leave, but they don’t know if they’re going to be able to.”

Beasley suspects addicts cut off from food assistance and desperate for food resort to theft or return to selling drugs for fast cash.

Greg Stone, an addiction counselor and director of Traverse City’s upcoming “wet house,” suggested the law require people with drug convictions to enroll in a treatment program or give back to the community in exchange for benefits.

”To arbitrarily take away benefits” is “unbelievable,” he said.