WILLIAM DEETJEN

A former drug agent’s view: EBT card photos blur the lines between poverty, criminality

Posted May 06, 2014, at 2:02 p.m.
George Danby

Having worked in law enforcement for nearly four decades I see issues through a certain lens. It is from that perspective that I respond to recent attempts by the governor to blur the lines between poverty and criminality.

When you work in law enforcement, your days can be punctuated by extremes: unexpected and life-threatening danger, human catastrophe and loss, mental illness and its effects, drug abuse and violent crime.

Maine’s law enforcement officers answer the challenges that come with the job — protecting our friends and neighbors.

For me, that protection meant more than conducting investigations and making arrests. It meant focusing my efforts on ways to make our community healthier, more stable and more secure.

Too many Maine families are struggling to escape the grips of poverty, whether it’s caused by a slow-to-recover job market , disability or a lack of education or job skills.

People struggling with poverty aren’t criminals.

During a made-for-TV moment recently, Gov. Paul LePage talked about the fact that EBT cards, which are used to distribute assistance to low-income people who are eligible for food supplement benefits or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, have been found at crime scenes.

Here’s what he failed to make clear. Transferring or trading EBT cards to someone else is already illegal.

It is a crime, and law enforcement takes it seriously. In fact, the state has a special fraud unit that works hard to enforce Maine’s laws, holding accountable individuals and businesses that abuse the system.

Despite the sound and fury from the governor, the rate of misuse is small. During my more than 20 years with the Police Department and my 19 years working for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, I never once came across an illegally possessed card. That’s consistent with recent statements from Maine’s attorney general that only 37 of these kinds of cases were prosecuted in the last three years.

Now the governor wants to add photos to EBT cards, claiming that this will reduce fraud. What he fails to mention is that EBT cards already have personal identifying information on them that allows any card to be tracked back to its owner. If people are trafficking them now despite this, there is little reason to believe they will be deterred by the presence of a photo on the card.

The problem with adding photos to EBT cards is that it actually invites retailers to violate the law.

Federal law dictates that retailers can’t treat people using EBT cards any differently than they treat all other customers. But the photo suggests to retailers that they must become enforcers, verifying whether the photo matches up, yet this is exactly what federal law prohibits.

Federal law also makes clear that any household member — and, with permission, certain others — can lawfully use the family’s card regardless of whether his or her picture is on it. This makes sense: You want a home health worker or helpful neighbor to be able to go to store for someone if he or she is laid up after a car accident.

So, putting photos on EBT cards creates more problems than it solves.

With no evidence that this will reduce fraud, and despite the odds that retailers will be exposed to liability for inadvertently breaking the law, LePage is working hard to make EBT cards and other assistance programs a wedge issue for his re-election campaign.

Nobody wants dollars meant to assist poor families and children to be misused, but we also have to be wise about the policies we create and how we use all public resources.

I would prefer to see the governor focus his efforts on actually reducing poverty, creating jobs and getting Maine back on the right track.

Police and hospitals are being forced to become mental health service providers, an issue that deserves far more attention.

And first responders are suffering because state support for towns and cities has been cut.

I understand the desire to make sure every dollar in assistance programs is spent wisely. But current efforts are placing the emphasis in the wrong place.

William Deetjen is a retired police officer and agent for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

 

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