Rep. Trey Radel pleaded guilty to cocaine possession charge (The Washington Post) Rep. Trey Radel pleaded guilty to cocaine possession charge (The Washington Post)

Rep. Henry J. “Trey” Radel III (R-Fla.) pleaded guilty Wednesday to a misdemeanor drug possession charge, telling D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Tignor that he had “hit bottom” following his arrest for cocaine possession.

Radel’s legal troubles began when he was caught buying cocaine from an undercover police officer outside a swank Dupont Circle restaurant on Oct. 29. Federal agents had come across Radel after arresting a drug dealer who said a congressman was a client. Court documents state that Radel had “on several occasions purchased, possessed, and used cocaine.”

“I struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice,” Radel said in a statement released the day before his court appearance.

The 37 year-old first-term congressman insisted that he would do whatever it takes to overcome the problems with alcohol abuse that have plagued his life and his family.

“However, this unfortunate event does have a positive side. It offers me an opportunity to seek treatment and counseling. I know I have a problem and will do whatever is necessary to overcome it, hopefully setting an example for others struggling with this disease,” Radel said in a statement posted on his congressional Web site.

“I believe in forgiveness and redemption. I hope I can be a role model for those who are struggling with this disease,” Radel said in a news conference. He is taking a leave of absence from Congress and will enter an inpatient drug treatment program in Florida. Radel is married and has a two-year old son.

Radel was sentenced to a year’s probation and fined $250 for unlawfully, knowingly, and intentionally possessing a quantity of cocaine.

While Radel believes that he can be forgiven for his drug offense and start anew after completing his probationary period, not everyone who’s convicted of a drug offense is so lucky. For example, under federal law, many low-income people who have been convicted of certain drug offenses may be permanently banned from ever receiving essential federal benefits, such as cash assistance and food stamps.

According to the Legal Action Center, since passage of the major welfare overhaul under former president Bill Clinton in 1996, any individual who has been convicted of a drug-related felony faces a lifetime ban on receiving federal welfare benefits (renamed as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 1996) or food stamps (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), even if the individual has completed a sentence, overcome an addiction, or been rehabilitated.

While Radel was seeking mercy from the judge for his personal wrongdoing, he appears to show little mercy towards others who suffer from drug problems caused, in many cases, by the “disease of alcoholism” that may lead to drug abuse. As an example, not long before he was caught in the sting operation, Radel had supported a measure that would give states the option to require food stamp recipients to submit to a drug test. He also voted in favor of cutting $39 billion over ten years in federal food stamp spending.

Denying food stamp benefits to drug offenders would have a disproportionate impact on women. For example, according to the Pew research center, women were about twice as likely as men (23% vs. 12%) to have received food stamps at some point in their lives. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that SNAP benefits go primarily to women. Non-elderly adult women make up 62 percent of all SNAP recipients.

Not only are women the primary beneficiaries of food stamps, but also they represent a growing share of the prison population, with the share of women in prison rising by 646% from 1980 to 2010 compared with a 419% growth for men, according to a report from The Sentencing Project. Women tend to go to prison for drug offenses, with one in four in jail due to a drug offense compared with 16 percent of men.

The report, “A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits” from The Sentencing Project, shows that the nation’s “war on drugs” has had a devastating impact on many women.

From 1996 through 2011, some 180,000 women have been subject to a lifetime ban on welfare benefits because they have been convicted of a state or federal drug felony, according to calculations by the report’s authors, Marc Mauer and Virginia McCalmont. The authors looked solely at the 12 states that impose a full ban on receiving TANF benefits. Texas is the home to 65,900 of these women and another 56,100 are in Georgia. The remaining are distributed across 10 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Radel was lucky in one sense. He purchased just 3.5 grams of cocaine from the undercover police officer. Had he bought 500 grams instead, he might have been charged with a felony drug offense for intending to traffic in drugs and, if convicted, been given a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence under federal sentencing rules, according to a list compiled by Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Radel deserves sympathy and encouragement to get his life back on track. He also deserves a second chance upon successful completion of his one-year probation.

One would also hope that given his desire to be a “role model” that Radel will use this “wake up call” to reassess how he views the consequences imposed on others who violate the nation’s drug laws. Perhaps his own drug conviction may help him realize that it doesn’t make sense to punish people for life for their “extremely irresponsible” choices.