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Criminal justice includes food security — we can’t ban the social safety net

May 16, 2019
State that have rejected the tough on crime approach to welfare reform have improved public safety outcomes.

This commentary was originally published in The Hill.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has signed criminal justice reform legislation that will ease reentry for people returning home from prison. Among the most notable elements of the new law is an opt out of a 23-year-old federal ban on food stamps and financial assistance for people with felony drug convictions. The change will help protect the many people who confront hunger and poverty upon their release from prison.

Mississippi is the latest state to amend or rescind this cruel federal policy, which emerged when the political consensus of the 1990s supported punitive and racially charged approaches to both drugs and poverty.

President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 that significantly restricted access to the social safety net through work and eligibility requirements for financial assistance, and it established a lifetime ban on benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense. The changes followed years of congressional actions to establish harsh mandatory minimums for federal drug offenses and incentivize states to follow its lead in enacting long sentences. Unfair perceptions about people who use drugs, particularly crack cocaine, powered the debate.

While the law permits states to opt out of the ban, and ones as diverse as Arkansas, California, Maine and Wyoming have already done so, 30 states still maintain either a lifetime or modified ban on SNAP, TANF or both.

According to the National Institute of Health, 91 percent of people transitioning from incarceration report experiencing food insecurity. Moreover, employment opportunities for returning residents are limited because of outdated or inadequate skills, medical and mental health challenges and employer bias. A Harvard University study conducted by Bruce Western of 120 people in Boston found an initial average annual income of just $6,500 after incarceration.

The impoverished status of people leaving incarceration also exacerbates the financial conditions of the poor families to whom they return. By definition, families share with one another; more people in a household without more resources translates to less food for everyone in the family, including children.

States that have rejected the tough on crime approach to welfare reform have improved public safety outcomes. One study found that recidivism rates declined up to 10 percent one year after release when cash assistance and food stamps were immediately available to people returning home.

The growing bipartisan consensus supporting criminal justice reform should recognize the need to support people reentering our communities with educational services, drug treatment, housing assistance and financial and nutritional support. Indeed, a recent proclamation issued by President Trump declared April 2019 Second Chance Month, and committed “to providing support and resources that former inmates need to meet their responsibilities, rediscover their self‑worth, and benefit from the gift of a second chance.” His commitment should include supporting legislation to end the TANF and SNAP bans for people with drug felony convictions. These reforms are foundational to successful reintegration.

Fortunately, Congress may be showing it has learned from the mistakes of its past. Last year, the U.S. Senate successfully held off an amendment incorporated into the House of Representatives’ bill to reauthorize SNAP that would have extended the lifetime food stamp ban to people convicted of violent offenses. The amendment, which would have permanently excluded people from accessing food assistance regardless of the date of their offense, was widely opposed by civil rights and anti-hunger organizations as well as conservative groups known for their embrace of criminal justice reform. Its defeat is a hopeful sign.

In Mississippi, an estimated 67,000 people — disproportionately women — will gain access to food stamps because of the state’s decision to lift the federal ban. While championing the new law, Republican state Sen. Sally Dotson said, “the overall goal is for anyone who has previously been incarcerated or struggled with addiction to become productive members of our communities.” Evidence suggests that in this respect, Mississippi is on the right track.

Kara Gotsch is director of Strategic Initiatives at The Sentencing Project

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