In partnership with over 100 organizations, the Women’s Foundation of California is supporting the passage of SB 1029. Current law makes it impossible for people who, despite having completed their sentences, to receive CalWORKs (welfare to work) or CalFresh (food stamps) assistance for the rest of their lives because of a felony conviction. SB 1029 would repeal this lifetime ban.
When I think about how current law plays out in people’s lives, I am reminded of my friend Beverly Henry, a woman who was incarcerated several times for drug possession and low level sales. She was someone who was “doing a life sentence on the installment plan.” Four years ago, Beverly was released from Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) for the last time. Of course, being addicted to drugs was not the only definition of Beverly. In fact while incarcerated, she was a peer counselor for people with HIV and led advocacy efforts on behalf of women with hepatitis C and HIV. In that capacity, when a legislative select committee came to Valley State Prison for Women, she testified about the health care challenges facing incarcerated women who are living with these illnesses.
Next to this blog post, you’ll see a picture of Beverly sewing an American flag at CCWF. All American and California flags in state buildings in California are made at CCWF. Despite all the good that Beverly did, her advanced age, and her economic need, she was not permitted to receive food stamp assistance when she was released from prison – and that was true up until the day she died on March 21st, 2014.
The lifetime ban on people receiving benefits such as CalWORKs and CalFresh was made law 18 years ago, in the midst of the war on drugs. Over the past several years, there has been greater willingness on the part of the public to think differently about punishment and incarceration, especially when it comes to providing treatment for substance abuse, and the other critical supports that can help people to succeed and stay out of prison. I hope the era of equating punishment with withholding basic necessities has come to an end, and our state can begin the process of rebuilding our broken social services system along with our failed criminal justice policies. Locking people up and throwing away the key has not made our communities safer. Neither has withholding food and basic services.
Now we have an opportunity to make two historic changes to the way we fund CalWORKs (welfare to work) recipients in California, and thereby begin to right some serious wrongs. Through SB 899, we can repeal the maximum family grant which contributes to keeping families in poverty, and through SB 1029, we can lift the ban on recipients who have been convicted for drug felonies. Passing these two bills will send a message that we will not stand by while the most vulnerable people in our state are being required to shoulder a far greater burden of the economic inequalities than those who are living well and do not need the kinds of support that these two programs provide. CalWORKs is not only about cash assistance. It is also about childcare subsidies and other supports that will help people move out of poverty. By the same token, food is a basic human right. We should not be punishing people who have a drug felony by refusing to allow them to eat.
In California, we need to set new standards, to create a system where the punishment actually fits the crime. Not being able to buy food or provide support for families with dependent children has nothing to do with a person’s use or even sales of illegal drugs.
This is why the Women’s Foundation of California supports this bill – because it is a clear example of a policy addressing economic security and criminal justice. So, in Beverly’s name and in the names of the thousands of Californians who face a lifetime ban on food stamps or CalWORKs because of drug felony convictions, let’s support SB 1029.