Lawmakers examine fix to Clinton-era limits on help for released inmates

By: - February 25, 2021 4:59 am

Bill Clinton signing changes to U.S. public assistance programs in 1996., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With then-President Bill Clinton promising to “end welfare as we know it,” the federal government passed a welfare reform law in 1996 that banned people convicted of drug offenses from accessing assistance such as food stamps, but gave states the power to opt out.

Nearly 30 years later, Nevada is considering a legislative fix that allows those formerly incarcerated for drug crimes to access Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

“Of the roughly 400,000 people currently enrolled in the SNAP program, less than 4,000 between July 2019 and January this year were denied because of their substance abuse conviction,” said Shane Piccinini, the government relations manager with the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. “The harder number to get at is the number of people who may have been eligible through all of the other qualifications of SNAP and TANF that didn’t apply because they knew they would be denied because of the ban. There is no way to know that.” 

Assembly Bill 138, which was heard Wednesday, removes the prohibition. Originally language would have required persons to show they were not “currently possessing, using or distributing controlled substance,” but Assemblywoman Susie Martinez, the primary sponsor for the legislation, eliminated that section. 

Several Republican lawmakers were concerned about the amended version of the legislation. 

“Hypothetically then there could be someone who had been convicted then conceivably could still, in an ongoing way, not only be using himself or herself but actively distributing to others, perhaps even minors, and would still not be barred from participation and access to these programs?” Assemblyman Andy Matthews asked.

But Piccinini countered that questions about a person’s behavior shouldn’t be placed on agencies providing food assistance. 

“Those are matters that need to be addressed by the criminal justice system and not by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services,” he responded. 

Noting Nevada lacks resources to provide drug and mental health services, Republican Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus supported removing requirements for people to show they’ve completed a drug program.

However, she was worried the bill didn’t have any requirements “or any carrot to help encourage these folks to continue not using.”

During testimony in support of the bill, Christine Saunders, the policy director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada said “limiting access to food for someone and their family is a cruel way to encourage treatment.” 

Piccinini along with others testifying in support of AB 138 said the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act signed by Clinton in 1996 specifically excluded those with drug convictions over other crimes, a decision that also disproportionately burdened Black and brown communities who are convicted at higher rates.

“Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men are,” he said. “Hispanic men are 2.7 times as likely to be convicted as white men are.”

With women being the fastest growing segment of the prison population, they are also disproportionately affected by the policy, Piccinini said   

Data from the Crime and Justice Institute found that incarceration rates among women in Nevada has increased 39 percent over the last decade, a significant portion being imprisoned for drug-related crimes. 

Women of color are also incarcerated at higher rates. 

Ayanna, who didn’t provide her last name during testimony, said life after incarceration is already full of obstacles.  

“Housing and employment are already hard enough challenges for these people,” she said. “Getting food shouldn’t be.”

No one testified in opposition to the bill.

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.