Bentz Measure Would End Lifetime Ban on Aid to Residents Previously Convicted of a Drug Crime

DOVER – Delawareans currently blocked from receiving public aid through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program could see that lifetime ban lifted under bipartisan legislation unveiled Thursday.

Sponsored by Rep. David Bentz, House Bill 11 would remove the lifetime prohibition on people convicted of drug crimes from receiving public aid from TANF, a federal block grant provided to states for a wide range of benefits, services and activities, including funds for low-income families with children. The cash assistance program is the principal form of assistance available to most families in poverty to pay for things like electricity bills or school supplies.

Delaware is one of just 10 states that impose a lifetime disqualification for TANF for persons convicted of a drug felony. People convicted of other felonies are able to receive TANF cash assistance – drug-related offenses are the only ones that trigger the lifetime prohibition.

“We as legislators have an obligation to continuously review past practices and policies and determine if they are working as intended. The vast majority of people who are going to prison will be returning home at some point. If we want them to be able to readjust to society, we need to have a support system for them,” said Rep. Bentz, D-Newark. “These are people who don't have jobs yet and rely on their families to provide food and shelter in the early going. Our goal should be to prevent recidivism and give people the best possible chance to lead productive lives when released.”

Under existing law, individuals convicted of any state or federal drug felony, including possession of marijuana – which can be a felony under federal law – are ineligible for TANF for life. Although the children of a mother convicted of a drug crime can still receive assistance, the family’s overall award is significantly reduced, and in practice this affects the well-being of families and children.

TANF funds are limited to 36 months, during which a person must work or participate in work-related activities for 30 hours per week, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services. To receive TANF funds, a person must actively seek and accept employment, cooperate with the Division of Child Support Services, sign an agreement that their children attend school and have up-to-date immunizations, and attend parenting classes.

The federal “War on Drugs” during the 1980s into the 90s led to policies penalizing drug offenders, including “user accountability” provisions that denied certain federal benefits. A 1996 federal law imposed the lifetime ban for those convicted of drug crimes, but gave states the ability to opt-out of the ban.

Although the stated reason for imposing such bans was to deter drug use, research has shown that not only has this not worked, even those who were later informed of the punishment said that it “would not have acted as a deterrent during active addiction.”

In its 2015 report, The Sentencing Project found that an estimated 2,000 women affected by the TANF restrictions from 1996 to 2011. The report also showed that approximately 86 percent of TANF recipients were women.

A similar bill Rep. Bentz sponsored unanimously passed the House during the 148th General Assembly but was not considered by the full Senate before session ended.

HB 11 will be assigned to the House Health & Human Development Committee. The General Assembly will reconvene on January 10, 2017.