The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

February 11, 2011

Senate OKs food stamps for convicted drug felons

CHARLESTON — Senators agreed Thursday to let felons convicted of drug crimes become eligible again for food stamps, although one critic raised the specter of another “hug a thug” outreach.

In approving the bill, the Senate moved to join 17 other states that decided to abandon a rule imposed in the Clinton-era welfare reform law.

Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said all other felons, upon release from prison, may begin collecting benefits, except for those involving controlled substances.

“I’m very passionate about how we address our controlled substance crisis in West Virginia,” protested one opponent, Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell.

Jenkins reminded his colleagues that a White House drug official recently testified before state lawmakers working on a ban of synthetic drugs that no more “hug a thug” programs were needed.

“We’re not talking about people convicted of misdemeanors,” Jenkins sad.

“We’re talking about the worst of the worst type of drug cases.”

Palumbo said money for the programs in question all comes from federal sources and that no state dollars are at stake.

All other felons, including those locked up for murder, are already eligible to begin getting food stamps and other such assistance when their sentences are completed, Palumbo said.

Jenkins said he didn’t think the controlled substance problem had escalated to the point it has now.

“My sense is, now is the time for us to crack down on drugs,” he said.

“If we opt out, this will say if that felony drug dealer lives in West Virginia, he or she is going to be able to collect benefits like Social Security and food stamps.”

Palumbo said the bill covers people who have paid a debt and have returned to society.

“I’m not just sure we ought to be heading down this path,” Jenkins continued.

But the bill’s lone sponsor, Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, said he was concerned about the at-risk families of felons.

“They would have lost these benefits based on what was done by the father or husband,” he said.

“That is my main concern.”

Jenkins, however, said the benefits could be received by an ex-con who has no children.

“Let’s go deeper into this,” said another supporter, Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph.

“This is not really about the convicted felon. When that individual did something wrong and ended up in the court system, people were left at home. There was a wife. There were babies. There were children. That’s what this is really all about.”

The measure passed 27-6, with opposing votes cast by Jenkins, and Sens. John Pat Fanning, D-McDowell; Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas; Donna Boley, R-Pleasants; David Nohe, R-Wood; and Dave Sypolt, R-Preston.

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