JUNEAU — The criminal justice reform bill would allow drug felons to receive federally funded food stamps for the first time in more than a decade, but one senator wants them to pass a drug test first.
Senate Bill 91, authored by North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, proposes opting out of a federal ban on Food Stamps for drug felons to help them get back on their feet as part of a broader effort to reduce crime and shrink the prison population.
The latest rewrite of the bill introduced by Senate State Affairs Committee Chair Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, on Thursday would make eligibility dependent on recipients passing both scheduled and random tests for illegal drugs.
Stoltze said his first thought was to remove the provision entirely, but said in an interview after the meeting he felt drug testing was a better route.
“In the end this is so narrow on drug testing, this is for people who’ve been convicted and there has to be a suspicion,” he said. “When you’re giving people benefits you want to make sure that it’s going to them and their families. And that’s a group that’s proven themselves less than trustworthy.”
Currently, people with drug convictions on their record face a lifetime ban from receiving federal food assistance in Alaska.
A 1996 federal law bars anyone convicted of a drug felony on the state or federal level from ever receiving federally-funded food stamps. The law allows states to opt out of the ban and set their own eligibility requirements, and many have done so.
Alaska is among 10 states that still have the lifetime ban on the books, according to a letter supporting lifting the ban from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, five other states that have opted in require some kind of drug testing.
Such requirements have faced mixed success with legal challenges, and the changes made by Stoltze anticipate that. If the drug testing requirement is overturned by the courts, the latest draft includes a trigger that would return the blanket ban on drug felons receiving Food Stamps.
The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission helped shape Senate Bill 91 and recommended removing the ban without any eligibility restrictions such as drug testing.
The commission noted many points of support for offering food stamps to convicted drug felons, noting that no similar restrictions are on people of other crimes.
“The specific exclusion of convicted drug offenders from food assistance upon their release from prison does not solve a problem, but rather exacerbates one,” it explained. “Many ex-offenders re-entering their communities are destitute and require some short-term public assistance as they seek stable housing, legitimate work and try to reunite with their families.”
In a footnote it explained the additional eligibility requirements “appear unduly burdensome for state agencies or courts to administer, or for individuals to understand and satisfy.” It also noted that many of the restrictions are already satisfied by parole or probation conditions.
Monica Windom, the Department of Public Assistance’s Program and Policy Development chief, told the committee much of the existing research on tying drug testing to benefits showed “it not to be cost effective,” but declined to give a department position on the change or the bill itself.
Many of the testifiers on Thursday declined to give a position on the new version of the bill and its many other changes, as it was released early Thursday morning.
Stoltze has been critical of some of the process behind the bill, saying that he feels that victims have been left out of the formulation of the recommendations.
Last week the director of the Office of Victims and two police officers voiced concerns about the bill to the committee, particularly around Alaska’s constitutional provisions for victims’ rights.
Among the many changes contained in the new version of Senate Bill 91 make smaller changes to penalties for property and drug crimes than the version authored by Coghill. In also reverses some of the provisions surrounding probation and parole.
Summed up, Stoltze said the changes better protected the victims' rights guaranteed by the Alaska Constitution, a matter he said many other people overlook.
As for the drug testing, he closed the meeting with a call on the administration to stand up and support it.
“I think the public is with us on that one,” he said. “If the administration doesn’t like it, I hope they’ll have the courage to speak up on why they want more welfare benefits for criminals.”
The bill is scheduled to be heard again early next week in the Senate State Affairs Committee and is already scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It still has a long way to go with less than half of the regularly scheduled session left.
Gov. Bill Walker made the bill one of his top priorities, particularly amid efforts to reduce the state’s budget.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.