New Jersey residents who have served prison time for personal drug crimes will have greater access to certain welfare benefits and emergency cash support under a proposal signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Chris Christie.
But those convicted of drug distribution — including low-level dealers struggling to support their own addictions — still won’t enjoy this same safety net.
While those who did time for non-drug related crimes are eventually eligible for government assistance, the 1996 federal welfare reform law excluded Americans found guilty in cases involving controlled substances from receiving benefits over their entire lives. New Jersey is among the more than two dozen states that chose to permit parents convicted of drug offenses to collect federal benefits if they have dependent children; the state also allows individuals with drug records to get state-issued public assistance if they are participating in certain drug treatment programs.
The new law (S-601) ensures these state General Assistance benefits would be available to former prisoners who are participating in outpatient drug treatment — or waiting for space to become available. Currently, the law restricts these benefits to those in residential, or inpatient treatment, and while county welfare offices often worked to enroll all those seeking treatment, the law would formally codify this change.
Officials said the state’s WorkFirst suite of welfare programs includes roughly 21,500 individuals and childless adults who receive benefits through the General Assistance fund; more than 3,100 of these recipients sought drug treatment in 2016, some 70 percent through outpatient programs. (WorkFirst also involves the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF program, and various emergency programs that can provide cash for rental assistance and other needs.)
Lead sponsors of the measure, under discussion for several years, also sought to protect those convicted of drug sales offenses, especially low-level crimes. Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a prime sponsor, recalled a late-night tour of New Brunswick in which he saw young men and women, and elderly individuals, working street corners to support their own addictions.
“The main drug dealers aren’t on the streets to sell,” Vitale said. Instead, he said the kingpins stay inside where it is safer and give desperate users a few free fixes to do their dirty work.
But, when a version of the bill that included this element passed last spring, Christie vetoed the measure and sent it back to lawmakers for revisions. An analysis of that plan by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services noted that nearly 1,400 requests for General Assistance were denied in 2014 because the applicants had a record that included drug distribution.
“Denying them treatment does more harm than good,” Vitale said.
Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio (D-Mercer), another lead sponsor, largely agreed. “We got some of what we wanted to do. We’ll have to look to the future to do the rest,” she said. “These are people who have served their time and were facing a lifetime ban on receiving these most basic benefits.”
Muoio said GA benefits only provide around $140 a month; “It’s the bottom of the social safety net,” she said, but even that can make a difference for those in desperate need. “This change is designed to help end the cycle of addiction and recidivism by giving people the means to turn their life around. Financial assistance, job training, and education — all of these things provide hope and a chance at a new start,” she said.
Supporters of the measure said it is just another way to chip away at the harmful legacy of the War on Drugs, which seems especially outdated given the growing understanding that drug addiction is a chronic disease, like diabetes or high blood pressure.
Under Christie, New Jersey has invested significantly in efforts to reduce the flow of addictive pharmaceuticals, improve access to addiction treatment, and expand treatment options for non-violent convicts charged with drug crimes. But tens of thousands of drug users still seek treatment each year, with many struggling to find a spot in an appropriate, affordable program.
The new law, which updates the state’s WorkFirst restrictions, also protects those participating in drug treatment programs that include prescription medication like Suboxone, a replacement drug used to control heroin addiction. In the past, only methadone had been permitted for those receiving GA benefits and anyone who tested positive for another controlled substance within 60 days of completing their treatment program could have their assistance terminated.
“Everyone deserves an opportunity to turn their lives around,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). “By removing the ban on general assistance eligibility, we empower residents to build a new future for themselves and their families.”