When Martha Stewart left prison in 2004 after serving a five-month sentence for conspiracy and obstruction of justice, she issued an emotional plea on behalf of the women she did her time with, many of whom were locked up for nonviolent drug offenses. “I beseech you all to think about these women,” Stewart said in a statement (PDF). “They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life out there.”
Stewart recognized that many women with drug convictions were victims of lives crippled by poverty and hardship and that a little assistance from the state would be much more beneficial to them than a heavy dose of punishment.
Sadly, thanks to a hastily added provision to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), also known as the Welfare Reform Act, which aimed to reduce welfare dependence, not only are women with drug convictions unlikely to get the help they need before or during their incarceration, but many of them will also face being barred for life from receiving most forms of public benefits — from cash assistance to food stamps — after they serve their time.
A new report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming the U.S. criminal-justice system, examined the impact of the PRWORA provision, which affects those convicted in state and federal courts of felony drug offenses. Titled “A Lifetime of Punishment” (PDF), the report found that an estimated 180,000 women were being subjected to a lifetime exclusion from welfare benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The purpose of the prohibition, presumably, is to deter drug use and the criminal behavior that sometimes arises from it by making it harder for addicts to trade food stamps or use cash benefits for drugs. However, the report found no evidence that this goal was being achieved. On the contrary, by denying benefits to those most in need, the ill-conceived embargo, which is in full effect in 12 states (and in partial effect in 25 others), may be having a particularly devastating impact on women and children of color — and may be more likely to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and addiction that leads people to abuse or sell drugs in the first place.
THE PDF: A Lifetime of Punishment is worth reading.
Also see: Portrait of Women in Prison
All links are mentioned in the article.
I have to wonder what behavior, exactly, results in a i a felony conviction in each State.