January 21, 2019

An inspiring moment

When it comes to watching the WV legislature, I'm generally pretty jaded. Maybe even cynical, especially for the last few years. But last week, I was honestly moved emotionally by debates in the House Judiciary Committee.

The topic was a bill that would restore eligibility for SNAP (formerly food stamp) assistance to people convicted of drug felonies. It's one of our top priorities this year in a state struggling with the opioid epidemic and in need of supporting recovery efforts.

As a result of ill-thought-out policies enacted in the 1996 federal welfare "reform" bill, people with such felonies are denied SNAP benefits for life...unless states opt out. As of now, all but three states, including...you guessed it...West Virginia, have done so.

(I don't want to give anyone ideas, but this is the only class of felony convictions to which the lifetime ban applies. I've sometimes joked, darkly, that if the fictional cannibalistic villain Hannibal Lector would have gotten out of prison, he would have been eligible for SNAP...although he probably wouldn't have needed it).

To state the obvious, people who have committed drug felonies, like anyone else, still need to eat. And they have major obstacles to employment. And they are in danger of relapsing, especially in the first few years. And if they live in families eligible for SNAP, the benefit level is lower than it otherwise would have been due to this policy

And the policy is flawed on its own terms. Many crimes may be drug related, from theft to assault and beyond. But unless they were specifically prosecuted as drug felonies, the ban would not apply.

Anyhow, late last week, the House Judiciary Committee took up a bill eliminating the lifetime ban. It faced surprisingly little resistance aside from a proposed amendment, eventually withdrawn, to delay eligibility.

I was inspired by the statements of several delegates, including especially Chairman John Shott, who spoke out for basic human mercy and decency.

The bill passed the committee with no amendments and with only one "nay" vote.

It's nice to know that mercy, however occasionally, still has a home in West Virginia.