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TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Sandra B. Cunningham and Senator Joseph F. Vitale revising the requirements for receiving general assistance benefits under the Work First New Jersey program, by removing restrictions for people who have been convicted of an offense involving the use, possession, or distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, cleared the Assembly today.

“By removing these restrictions that are placed on drug offenders, we can give individuals in our state the ability to get back on their feet and reestablish themselves. We need to recognize the need to assist individuals who have paid their debt to society and are struggling to reenter as productive citizens,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “The Work First New Jersey program can go a long way in terms of helping individuals who have just gotten out of prison to pay for shelter stays or to qualify to enroll in rental assistance programs around the state, which helps keep people off the streets and under a roof.”

Currently, people convicted of offenses involving the use or possession of a controlled dangerous substance must enroll in or complete a licensed residential drug treatment program in order to be eligible to receive general assistance benefits. S-601 would permit enrollment or completion of a licensed outpatient drug treatment program to alternatively satisfy this requirement if necessary.

The legislation would remove the lifetime ban on eligibility for general assistance benefits for individuals who have been convicted of offenses involving distribution of a controlled dangerous substance. These individuals would be subject to the same requirements for drug treatment as individuals with convictions related to drug possession or use.

The bill would also clarify that an individual who has a past drug conviction may receive general assistance benefits without enrolling in or completing a drug treatment program if either the treatment is not available, or the person is excused from enrolling in a treatment program for good cause.

“This bill looks to bring fairness to those who are trying to rebuild their lives and be productive citizens,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “Furthermore, it will expand opportunities for people, and give them comfort and relief to know that this assistance will be available to them, despite their backgrounds and regardless of their pasts. We hope the governor takes the appropriate steps for these individuals.”

The Work First New Jersey general assistance program provides an essential lifeline for those most in need. Eligible New Jersey residents are provided a small cash subsidy of approximately $140 per month, depending on family size and whether the recipient is disabled.

Prior to 1997, New Jersey’s general assistance program did not deny benefits based on an individual’s drug convictions. In 1996, however, federal legislation was enacted disqualifying individuals with drug convictions from Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While states were given the option to opt out of this disqualification through legislation, New Jersey expanded it with the creation of the Work First New Jersey program, which disqualified individuals with drug convictions from receiving general assistance as well.

In 2010, recognizing the need to assist individuals who have paid their debt to society and are struggling to reenter as productive citizens, New Jersey passed the “Women and Families Strengthening Act,” repealing the drug conviction ban for SNAP and TANF benefits. This repeal, however, did not apply to general assistance under the Work First New Jersey program. Currently, of the 28 states with general assistance programs, New Jersey is one of only four states that deny benefits to individuals with drug convictions.

S601 cleared the Assembly 47-23-2 and cleared the full Senate 21-10 last month. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

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