After Two Decades, Convicted Drug Felons in Alabama Will Have Welfare Access

By McCarton Ackerman 06/29/15

Felony drug offenders will now be able to receive food stamps and temporary cash payments.

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After nearly 20 years of not having access to welfare benefits, convicted drug felons in Alabama will now have an easier time getting back on their feet.

The state confirmed last week that felony drug offenders will now be able to receive food stamps and temporary cash payments, which they had been blocked out of due to a 1996 federal law reforming the welfare system. Alabama was one of a handful of states which had yet to override the bill, but a comprehensive prison reform bill passed during the 2015 legislative session has fixed this issue.

"We saw it as a justice issue," said Carol Gundlach, Alabama Arise policy analyst. "You can commit welfare fraud and homicide and still get welfare. That seemed fundamentally unfair and not the best for reforming our corrections system."

However, the welfare provision and other measures in the reform bill can’t go into effect until next year, when the Legislature appropriates $26 million to fund the changes listed in it.

Alabama Arise noted that 11,000 people throughout the state were incarcerated for drug offenses in 2011, roughly one-third of Alabama’s prison population. About 3,700 were released that same year, but it’s unclear how many of these people were denied welfare benefits due to their prior convictions.

Gundlach noted that the new policies could be life-changing for single mothers. She said women have told her stories about eating out of garbage cans, shoplifting or prostituting themselves in a desperate attempt to feed their families.

"They have to support those children," she said. "It is a really difficult thing to do that and stay drug free and rebuild your life when you have absolutely no support.”

Alabama Department of Human Resources spokesman Barry Spear clarified that children of these drug offenders were never directly affected by the welfare ban. A convicted drug felon could still receive benefits for their minor children, but it would be a lower amount since they couldn’t be counted in the equation.

The DHR reported that 883,325 Alabama residents received federal welfare benefits last April, while 30,118 people received cash benefits through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.