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New Jersey has a small safety-net to allow families (through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and individuals (through General Assistance) to weather hardship without succumbing to serious illness or homelessness.  However, two crucial components of that safety-net—General Assistance (GA) and Emergency Assistance (EA)—are denied to many individuals who have drug convictions.  Of the 28 states with GA, New Jersey is one of only four that deny these benefits to individuals with drug convictions.


The number of homeless New Jerseyans is at an alarming level. [1]  Banned from GA and EA, many individuals migrate to tent cities, abandoned buildings, or become institutionalized in hospitals or correctional facilities, trapped in a cycle from which they cannot escape.  In addition to the human suffering, this costs the state millions of dollars in added hospitalization and incarceration expenses that could be saved by removing the ban on GA.


Enacted in January 1997 as part of the now-discredited War on Drugs, the ban applies to any amount and no matter how long ago or what efforts the individual has made to rehabilitate themselves. 


This ban continues to punish people after they have repaid their debt to society and stacks the deck against successful re-entry. This is the only criminal act that has a lifetime ban: individuals who commit other crimes such as manslaughter, robbery, or sex offenses are allowed to receive GA after serving their sentence. 


Luckily, through the work of the Coalition and a strong partnership of NJ organizations, some progress in reversing the law is beginning to be seen. On March 12, 2015, Senator Sandra Cunningham introduced S2806, which amends the Work First New Jersey program to remove restrictions on convicted drug offenders that deny them GA.  Eligibility for GA also determines eligibility for Emergency Assistance.  The proposed legislation seeks to give individuals who have paid their debt to society the opportunity for successful re-entry by removing a significant barrier to shelter, permanent housing and supportive services, and also will: 


  • Save millions of dollars in incarceration and hospitalization costs for individuals who can be stably housed in the community with increased quality of life; 

  • Significantly reduce homelessness;

  • Link persons with mental health and substance abuse issues with appropriate services


For a March 2015 article summarizing the issue, including Senator Cunningham's thoughts on why the law should be changed, click here.



[1] As of June 2014, there nearly 14,000 New Jerseyans were homeless.  Study Finds 16 Percent Increase in Homelessness in NJ, The Star-Ledger, June 9, 2014,

General Assistance Drug Ban Reform


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