State law prohibits people with convictions for drug distribution from receiving general and emergency assistance from Work First, the state’s welfare program.
Legislation that would remove that restriction has passed both houses of the state Legislature and awaits action by Christie.
A broad coalition that includes dozens of groups working on substance abuse and poverty issues supported the legislation, saying it would restore fairness and help the poorest of the state’s poor citizens. Drug convictions are the only criminal convictions that preclude access to public assistance.
The bill – S-2806/A-4913 – was approved 46-28 by the General Assembly on Monday. The Senate approved the bill in December by a 26-8 vote.
Because the bill was approved on the final day of the legislative session, Christie has seven days to act. If he chooses to do nothing, the bill will expire. New versions of the bill – A-889 in the Assembly and S-601 in the Senate – have already been introduced.
The bill was supported unanimously by Democrats in both houses, though several Democrats did not vote. Just two Republicans in the Assembly – Robert Auth (Bergen) and Jack Ciattarelli (Somerset) – and four in the Senate – Diane Allen (Burlington), Chris Bateman (Somerset), Anthony R. Bucco (Morris) and Robert Singer (Ocean) – voted for the bill.
Republicans had proposed a competing bill that would have required all recipients of Work First assistance to submit to drug testing. That bill, A-141, would have required those who fail drug tests to enter treatment or potentially lose eligibility. The bill was not referred to committee and has expired. It has been reintroduced as A-114, sponsored by Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Sussex).
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the bill, and the governor has made it a policy not to comment on legislation that awaits his action.
However, in Tuesday’s State of the State speech, the governor touted his efforts on drug treatment and announced the conversion of a former state prison into a treatment facility for inmates.
“If we give people the tools and support they need to overcome this disease – and if we choose to free people from the stigma of addiction, and recognize this as the public health challenge it truly is -- we can help people to reclaim their lives,” Christie said Tuesday. “We can find the true measure of our compassion.”
Supporters of removing the drug-conviction restriction from Work First say they are hopeful that comments and actions like that this signal the governor’s support.
The restriction, says Stuart Weiner, managing attorney with the Trenton office of the Community Health Law Project (CHLP), is a “is a relic of the war on drugs and, while that may have made sense 20 years ago, we are now in a place and a time when elected officials like Gov. Christie are looking at this with a new lens and with a lot of compassion for people trying to overcome addiction.”
“We think this bill goes hand in hand” with what the governor has been saying about “trying to help people overcome the barriers that drug addiction and mental illness have created in their lives and to give them a second chance,” he added.
Work First provides an array of services to low-income New Jerseyans, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and general assistance for individuals , food and housing aid, employment and drug and alcohol counseling, and emergency assistance.
There were 26,484 families receiving TANF in October, which covered 67,259 adults and children. Another 22,959 adults received general assistance cash aid -- $140 a month for those who can work and $210 a month for those who are deemed unable to work due to a disability. There were 4,257 families receiving emergency aid under TANF and 3,921 individuals receiving emergency payments under general assistance. The emergency aid usually takes the form of housing assistance.
Advocates estimate that about 1,750 people are excluded from the program because of the drug-conviction restriction. The cost of removing the restriction, they say, would be minimal – in the neighborhood of $3.5 million a year. That would be more than offset by savings in other areas, like incarceration, re-hospitalization, public safety, and homelessness prevention.
“There are a lot of indirect costs – this is really a back of the envelope calculation,” said Steven Leder, an attorney with the CHLP. The Office of Legislative Services did not offer an official estimate when reviewing the legislation, he said, so “it is hard to know what the true costs would be.”
The costs, though, are secondary, he said.
“Many of these convictions are ancient,” Leder said. The law passed in 1997 and covered convictions dating back to August 1996. “So you have people who may have a conviction that is 20 years old. And now, when they are facing hardship, when they are having hard times, they are not eligible.”
Edward Martone, director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of New Jersey, agrees. He called the distinction between a possession charge and an intent-to-distribute charge arbitrary. Police can charge a person with intent to distribute if they are in possession of more than 50 grams of marijuana or if they possess other substances considered more dangerous.
Someone arrested with less than 50 grams can qualify for general assistance, he said, if they go through drug treatment, which is provided for free and is designed around each individual’s particular drug situation.
“It gets people into treatment who otherwise would not be eligible or might not be able to afford it,” he said. The alternative often is “being on the street,” meaning the addiction does not get addressed.
“Arguably,” he added, “if you are getting your drug habit taken care of, it makes you more employable. The goal of the drug regimen and the welfare system are supposed to take care of you while you’re are getting into shape and to get you back into the work force.”
However, conviction on distribution charges precludes that opportunity.
“Our concern is that there are people who are just being left out of the process because of a specific type of drug offense,” he said. “There are people who could be helped with the small stipend. It would arguably cut down on number of homeless, the number of crimes being committed that are poverty related, by giving them something.”
Both Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, and Jeffrey Wild, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, said the restriction acts as a barrier to one of the better ways of preventing homelessness.
“The ban is preventing access to the shelter program, because shelters rely on GA (general assistance) payments,” Rice said.
Wild, who is an attorney, has represented residents of “Tent City,” a now-closed homeless encampment in Lakewood. He said he would ask the residents of the camp why they were living outside and he would be told that the government wouldn’t help.
“You can make a mistake 20 years ago – serve time for a minor conviction, for a small amount of marijuana – and you are barred from getting emergency assistance,” he said.
“If you can’t emergency housing,” he added, “it is next to impossible to get back on your feet.”
Rice said the people who receive general and emergency assistance in the state are the “poorest of the poor” and “the most intensely deprived.”
For them, it is “not just a matter of do I pay rent or utilities,” she added. “This population is past all of those decisions.”