After serving three years in prison for selling a small amount of Xanax pills, Charles Thompson found even worse accommodations upon his release in 2015: the sand under the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
“I couldn’t get housing and I hated shelters,” said Thompson, 60, of Atlantic City. “So I slept for months with the possums, raccoons, and squirrels. There was no General Assistance to help me.”
People convicted of felony drug distribution in New Jersey cannot receive GA, a program that gives low-income adults with no dependent children a monthly stipend of $185, as well as job training. Thanks to a strange quirk of law, anyone who completes a prison sentence for a non-drug distribution felony — including a violent crime — can get GA. People convicted of drug possession may receive GA.
“They need to get rid of the GA ban for drug felons,” said Thompson, who now lives in an apartment after getting help from Legal Services of New Jersey, as well Jewish Family Service of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.
“A person comes home from jail after doing a little something like selling some pills, and he can’t get help?” he said. “There are people running around raping people, and they can get GA when they leave prison.”
Thompson’s call for a change has support.
In fact, Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget contains nearly $7 million in funding to eliminate the GA ban for those convicted of drug felonies. And the state Legislature is working on a bill to end it as well, with hearings scheduled Tuesday.
During his administration, former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed two bills that would have upended the ban, said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey in Bordentown, Burlington County. These days, some 75 social-service and advocacy organizations are supporting an end to the ban. Meanwhile, Koubiadis added, “nobody I’m hearing is against the bill at this point.”
Getting rid of the ban is part of efforts by the Murphy administration to support “social justice in its continued efforts to build a stronger, fairer, and inclusive state,” Sarah Adelman, acting commissioner of the state’s Department of Human Services, said in a statement. The change “gives more individuals the assistance and new start they need,” she added.
The ban disproportionately affects people of color, said Ed Martone, policy analyst for the National Center for Advocacy and Recovery for Behavioral Health, headquartered in Robbinsville, Mercer County.
“What’s so pernicious about the ban,” Martone said, “is that it’s for a lifetime, which means you never complete the punishment for your crime, even though you served your prison sentence.”
Though the benefit is small, it can be enough to allow a person to rent a single room, or compensate a relative for providing a bed or couch, advocates say.
The anticipated changes in GA rules come at a time when President Joe Biden has been urging states to help people reentering society after being imprisoned.
His administration’s American Families Plan, which offers increased support to parents and children, and helps combat poverty, includes a proposal to facilitate reentry for formerly incarcerated individuals by making sure they have access to food stamps, now know as SNAP, for the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Individuals convicted of a drug-related felony are currently ineligible to receive SNAP benefits unless a state has taken the option to eliminate or modify this restriction.
As it happens, both New Jersey and Pennsylvania already allow those convicted of drug felonies to receive SNAP benefits.
But GA is a different program, funded by states, not the federal government. Pennsylvania no longer has GA.
Overall, 13,496 New Jersey residents are receiving GA benefits as of the last count, state figures show. That number rose 33% during the pandemic, according to Maura Sanders, chief counsel at Legal Services of New Jersey, headquartered in Edison, Middlesex County.
Advocates estimate that nearly 1,000 people who had been convicted of felony drug distribution were rejected for GA benefits in 2020.
By punishing those who deal drugs more than those who have committed violent crimes, the ban illustrates an outsize enmity toward drug-related crime, advocates say. In most cases, people were convicted of dealing small amounts of drugs, often to supply their own addictions, Sanders said.
“We are not seeing El Chapo applying for General Assistance,” she said. “These are not convicted drug kingpins but people with addiction problems who may have been very low-level dealers.
“Now it’s years later and most want to get into drug treatment and job training, all of that connected to receipt of General Assistance. They break down in tears when I say they can’t get assistance. They tell me, ‘I cant even afford a toothbrush right now.’ ”
Precluding these people from GA only perpetuates misery for those reentering everyday society after being incarcerated, said Ali Coles, 55, of Camden.
A former drug dealer who served four separate prison sentences, Coles now unloads trucks for a supermarket after receiving support from Volunteers of America Delaware Valley.
“Getting GA would have been a start for me, and it would have kept me from being homeless the last time I got out of prison,” he said. “It would prevent you from going back to selling drugs just to survive.”
With their eyes on possible movement in the Legislature on the anti-ban bill, advocates are hopeful people in Coles’ predicament won’t have to suffer much longer.
“There’s a lot of support to make this change,” Martone said. “The legislative process is long, even if you’re pushing a bill for kittens and rainbows.
“But I’m optimistic.”