Lifting a longstanding ban, New Jersey now allows those convicted of felony drug distribution to receive General Assistance (GA).
The much-praised ruling ends a 25-year-old law that had defied both fairness and common sense, say advocates who have worked for change, codified in legislation signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Dec. 21 .
Previously, the law allowed anyone who committed time for crimes other than drug distribution or intent to distribute — including violent crimes — the opportunity to apply for GA, a program that grants low-income adults without dependent children a monthly allowance of $185.
Although the benefit is small, that may be enough to allow someone to rent a single room in someone’s home, or compensate a parent for providing a bed or sofa, advocates say.
Beyond money, admission to the GA program was the prerequisite for receiving vital social services, such as emergency housing assistance, job training, and substance abuse assistance.
Without the ability to get GA, those convicted of distributing drugs – many of whom are homeless – were released from prison at a severe disadvantage.
This is why the end of the ban was so welcomed. “No one I hear is against the bill at this point,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey.
“I will absolutely try to get general help now,” said Amy Eldridge, 41, who lives homeless in Trenton and just learned of the change from Luis Mercado Rivera, her social worker at Arm in Arms, an organization anti-hunger non-profit in Trenton. Rivera called the new law a “beautiful idea.”
Eldridge said she had tried to get an GA in the past, but her 1999 conviction for selling ketamine (also called Special K) and subsequent six-year incarceration barred her.
In a humiliation she says she will never forget, Eldridge went to her local county assistance office to apply for GA after her release, where an icy employee turned her down.
” Why ? “I asked him,” Eldridge said. “Then she slapped a piece of paper that had my [criminal] sheet on the glass between us and said, ‘That’s why you’re not getting anything.'”
While it’s hard to track, advocates estimate that nearly 1,000 people who had convictions for distributing felony drugs were turned down for GA benefits in 2020 alone.
Overall, more than 13,000 New Jersey residents receive GA benefits of about $39 million, Koubiadis said. That number has increased by 33% during the pandemic, according to supporters.
It turns out that New Jersey and Pennsylvania already allow people convicted of drug-related offenses to receive SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps).
But GA is a different program, funded by the states, not the federal government. Pennsylvania no longer has a GA.
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.
At the time, all drug offenses — including possession, use, distribution and intent to distribute — barred formerly incarcerated people from accessing GA, Martone said.
In 2016, former Governor Chris Christie approved legislation that would allow those convicted of narcotics possession or use the right to seek GA, but held the line on those convicted of distributing or distribution intent, said Martone, who has been pushing for years to reverse the ban.
By punishing those who sell drugs more than those who commit violent crimes, the ban illustrates an outsized enmity toward drug-related crimes, advocates say.
In most cases, people have been convicted of selling small amounts of drugs, often to fuel their own addiction, according to Maura Sanders, chief legal counsel for New Jersey Legal Services, headquartered in Edison, in Middlesex County.
When the ban was lifted last month, some 75 social service and advocacy organizations had backed the effort.
“It’s huge for so many people,” said Susan Long, a social worker with Hope One, an Atlantic County agency linked to the sheriff’s Hope Existe foundation. “Before the ban was lifted, it was really heartbreaking. People convicted of distribution would get on a bus outside the prison and then be dropped off, literally stuck in the streets, with no general assistance, no help.
“But now the ability to have General Support changes everything for them.”
Koubiadis accepted. “This is great news for our state,” she said. “It was a harmful ban that prohibited people from asking for help. At the time, it forever barred homeless people from receiving housing assistance.
“Now people can get help to rebuild their lives.”
The new law has been a long time coming, said Cuqui Rivera (no relation to Luis Mercado Rivera), executive secretary and president of criminal justice reform for Latino Action Network, an anti-discrimination advocacy group headquartered in in Scotch Plains, Union County.
“We’ve been fighting for this for years,” she said.
Rivera added that it will be some time before homeless people and others learn they can now qualify for GA.
But when they do, she says, it can only help.
“This is major and historic legislation,” she said.