February 9, 2004 - The Spokesman-Review (WA)

Bill Would Let Drug Felons Get Food Stamps

Looking for a Second Chance

By Richard Roesler, Staff writer

Dawn Kortness, 31, a felon with substance abuse in her past, is trying to get food-stamp benefits. A bill in the Legislature would reverse existing law and allow felons to get benefits.

OLYMPIA _ Eighteen months after finishing a three-month jail term for drug charges, Dawn Kortness has no health insurance, no home of her own, no job and no prospects.

She stays with relatives and applies for jobs. Of 40 applications -- fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, a laundry, a cabinetmaker, bingo hall and others -- she's only landed one interview. As soon as she mentions her felony conviction, the door closes.

She's even tried attaching her graduation certificate from an intensive anti-drug program and that just made things worse.

"I'm an excellent worker," she said. "I show up, I learn fast, I listen to rules. I just can't get a chance."

Some state lawmakers want to throw a taxpayer-funded lifeline to people like Kortness. They want to overturn the state's lifetime ban on giving food stamps to people convicted of a drug felony.

"You can be a child molester, a murderer, a rapist or a terrorist (and still qualify for food stamps when released), but you can't be a drug felon," said Linda Stone, Eastern Washington Director of the Children's Alliance, an advocacy group.

"It's appalling that this group of people have been singled out and denied a basic benefit to get back on their feet."

The ban wasn't Washington's idea. It was a last-minute provision that Congress included in 1996 welfare reform legislation. (The federal government pays for all food stamps, and picks up half the state's cost in running the program.)

Under the ban, kids in a home can still qualify for food stamps, but a parent who's a drug felon cannot. So the family's left trying to stretch an already meager food budget, Stone said.

Congress allows states to opt out of the ban, and 11 have. In Washington state, liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives have twice tried to overturn the ban. This year, no one testified against the bill, but it died anyway. Some lawmakers disliked it on moral grounds, others apparently worried about seeing "food stamps for felons" attack ads this fall from their political foes.

In a surprise twist, however, several conservative Republicans have joined liberal Democrats to push the issue in the Senate. The prime sponsor, Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham, is a former county sheriff. Local sponsors of Senate Bill 6411 include Spokane Republican Larry Sheahan and Senate Minority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. In early February, a Senate committee unanimously voted to support the bill.

"Instead of looking at it as a giveaway, look at what happens if they don't get fed," said Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, the author of the House version. "We can lock people up. Punishment is appropriate. But once they get out of prison, if they can't feed their families, we're kind of sending them down the same path."

Some backers make a purely financial argument for the change: the policy has left 30,000 Washingtonians ineligible for food stamps since 1997. That adds up to millions of federal dollars that aren't going to local grocers, said Bill Monto, with Washington Citizen Action.

In Spokane, Kortness' mom has tried for more than a year to convince state and federal officials to change the policy. She took Kortness to apply for food stamps, only to be turned away by state caseworkers. She's faxed letters to President Bush and U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, only to be referred back to state officials.

"Nobody wanted to do anything," said the mother, Carol Miles. "They said their hands were tied."

Unable to contribute to the household, even by buying some food, her daughter feels helpless and useless, she said. The two women periodically pile into Miles' Geo Metro to apply for more jobs for Kortness, but the answer's always the same: silence.

"The ones that want to change and better their lives, we need to give them a chance," said Miles. "They're still our people."

Richard Roesler can be reached at 360-664-2598 or by e-mail at richr@spokanenews.net

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