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Copyright (c) The Harvard Law Review Association 1997.
Harvard Law Review


Welfare Reform - Punishment of Drug Offenders - Congress Denies Cash Assistance and Food Stamps to Drug Felons. - Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-193, 115, 110 Stat. 2105 (to be codified at 42 U.S.C. 862a).

February, 1997

110 Harv. L. Rev. 983


Illegal drug use among Americans has, on average, fallen off considerably since 1979. 1 Yet among the nation's urban poor, the rate of drug use - of heroin and cocaine in particular - continues to escalate. 2 Across the country, legislators have responded to this problem by imposing increasingly harsh punishments on drug offenders. 3 The growing concentration of drugs in poor urban areas, however, is both a testament to the limitations of this sort of punitive response and an indication that policymakers serious about reversing this trend should consider carefully whether initiatives to expand penalties for drug offenses will reduce the demand for drugs in these communities.

No deliberation of this kind accompanied the attachment of the Gramm Amendment to the sweeping welfare reform legislation signed into law by President Clinton in August 1996. This amendment, proposed by Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and passed through the Senate to the Conference Committee with bipartisan support, 4 permanently denies cash assistance and food stamps to anyone convicted under state or federal law of a felony offense that "has as an element the possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance." 5 Because of this provision's seeming harmony with the overall spirit of the welfare reform package, legislators failed to assess the measure on its own terms: as an augmentation of the statutory punishment inflicted on drug offenders. As a consequence, Congress unwisely approved a measure that serves no legitimate punitive purpose and that may well increase the ...
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