April Brings Relief for Parents With Felony Drug Convictions

As part of the 2014-15 budget package, the Governor and legislators lifted the lifetime ban on receiving CalWORKs and the partial ban on CalFresh participation for people with felony drug convictions, removing a significant challenge that Californians with low-level criminal histories face when returning to the community following incarceration. Beginning April 1, 2015, individuals who were convicted of felony drug possession, use, or distribution after December 31, 1997, will not be banned from receiving CalWORKs and CalFresh benefits. This change will allow thousands of families to access these critical support services that help lift children and families out of poverty.

When federal welfare reform established Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) in 1996, states were given the option of subjecting individuals convicted of various drug felonies to a lifetime ban on receiving TANF and federal food assistance. California chose to implement a partial ban for CalFresh (the state program that delivers SNAP assistance) and expand the full ban for CalWORKs (the state program that delivers TANF assistance) to also include state General Assistance (GA) benefits.

CalFresh and CalWORKs provide a critical safety net to struggling families. Yet, for almost two decades thousands of Californians have been permanently ineligible to receive them due to prior drug-related felony convictions. In fact, in 2012 about 10,500 child-only CalWORKs cases included an adult who was ineligible due to a prior drug felony conviction, and recent estimates suggest that more than 20,000 cases may be ineligible for CalFresh due to the partial ban. Nationally, about a quarter of all individuals released from prison with drug convictions are custodial parents who would otherwise qualify for SNAP food assistance — as CalFresh provides — according to a 2005 study. Additionally, food insecurity and a lack of employment opportunities are both linked to high recidivism rates, so denying programs like CalFresh and CalWORKs to formerly incarcerated individuals risks undermining public safety.

The 2014-15 spending plan assumed increased state costs of $10.6 million in 2014-15 and $32.5 million annually thereafter due to the removal of these restrictions. However, the state may experience an offsetting reduction in public safety costs to the extent that expanding access to CalWORKs and CalFresh reduces crime and, in turn, lowers state and local incarceration costs, potentially by millions of dollars.

State policymakers’ action to lift the drug felony ban on receiving CalWORKs and CalFresh is an important step toward providing safety net services to formerly incarcerated individuals and their families at a time when rehabilitation and reducing recidivism are at the forefront of corrections budget discussions.

— Selena Teji