Lifting a longtime ban, New Jersey is now allowing people who have been convicted of felony drug distribution to receive General Assistance (GA).

The highly lauded move ends a 25-year-old law that had defied both fairness and common sense, say advocates who worked for the change, codified in legislation signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Dec. 21.

Before then, the law allowed anyone who had done time for crimes other than drug distribution or intent to distribute — including violent felonies — the chance to apply for GA, a program that gives low-income adults with no dependent children a monthly stipend of $185.

Though the benefit is small, it can be enough to allow a person to rent a single room in someone’s house, or compensate a relative for providing a bed or couch, advocates say.

Beyond the money, admission to the GA program has been the prerequisite for receiving vital social services, such as emergency housing assistance, job training, and help with substance abuse.

Without the chance to get GA, individuals convicted of drug distribution — many of them experiencing homelessness — have been released from prison at a severe disadvantage.

That’s why the end of the ban has been so roundly welcomed. “Nobody I’m hearing is against the bill at this point,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey.

`Beautiful idea’

“I will absolutely try to get general assistance now,” said Amy Eldridge, 41, who is living homeless in Trenton and just learned of the change from Luis Mercado Rivera, her social worker at Arm in Arms, an antihunger nonprofit in Trenton. Rivera characterized the new law as “a beautiful idea.”

Eldridge said she tried to get GA in the past, but her conviction in 1999 for selling the party drug ketamine (also called Special K) and subsequent six-year incarceration impeded her.

In a humiliation she says she’ll never forget, Eldridge went to her local county assistance office to apply for GA after her release, where an icy clerk denied her.

“‘Why?’ I asked her,” Eldridge said. “Then she slapped a piece of paper that had my [criminal] sheet on the glass between us and said, ‘This is why you get nothing.’”

Though it’s difficult to keep track, advocates estimate that nearly 1,000 people who had been convicted of felony drug distribution were rejected for GA benefits in 2020 alone.

Overall, more than 13,000 New Jersey residents are receiving GA benefits of around $39 million, Koubiadis said. That number rose 33% during the pandemic, advocates say.

As it happens, both New Jersey and Pennsylvania already allow those convicted of any drug felonies to receive SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps).

But GA is a different program, funded by states, not the federal government. Pennsylvania no longer has GA.

Enmity toward drug crimes

The ban began in 1997, said Ed Martone, policy analyst for the National Center for Advocacy and Recovery for Behavioral Health, headquartered in Robbinsville, Mercer County.

Back then, all drug offenses — including possession, use, distribution, and intent to distribute — precluded formerly incarcerated individuals access to GA, Martone said.

In 2016, former Gov. Chris Christie approved legislation that would allow those convicted of possession or use of narcotics the right to apply for GA, but held the line on people convicted of distribution or intent to distribute, said Martone, who has lobbied for years to reverse the ban.

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, according to Maura Sanders, chief counsel at Legal Services of New Jersey, headquartered in Edison, Middlesex County.

When the ban was lifted last month, some 75 social service and advocacy organizations had been supporting the effort.

“This is huge for so many people,” said Susan Long, a social worker with Hope One, an Atlantic County agency connected to the sheriff’s Hope Exists Foundation. “Before the lifting of the ban, it was truly heartbreaking. People with distribution convictions would get on a bus outside prison, then be dropped off, literally stuck on the streets, no General Assistance, no help.

“But now, the ability to have General Assistance changes everything for them.”

Koubiadis agreed. “This is great news for our state,” she said. “This was a harmful ban that prohibited people from asking for assistance. At the time, it forever banned the homeless from getting housing assistance.

“Now, people can get help rebuilding their lives.”

The new law has been a long time coming, said Cuqui Rivera (no relation to Luis Mercado Rivera), executive secretary and criminal justice reform chair for Latino Action Network, an antidiscrimination advocacy group headquartered in Scotch Plains, Union County.

“We’ve been fighting for this for years,” she said.

Rivera added that it will take a while before people who are homeless and others learn they may now qualify for GA.

But when they do, she said, it could only help.

“This is major, historic legislation,” she said.