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State Advocacy Update: Alabama and Texas Address Lifetime Federal Public Benefits Ban

July 01, 2015
Alabama and Texas have passed legislation scaling back restrictions on public benefits for individuals with felony drug convictions.

In recent months, there has been legislative reform to modify the federal food stamp ban in states like Alabama and Texas. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) imposed a lifetime denial of federal benefits for cash and food assistance to people convicted in state or federal courts of felony drug offenses; the ban is imposed for no other offenses but drug crimes. States can opt out of the federal ban or modify it by authorizing legislative reform. States that have not authorized a legislative remedy include Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming. During 2014, Missouri modified the federal ban and California opted out of the full ban.


Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 67, a major prison reform projected to reduce the state’s prison population by more than 4,200 people and avoid future corrections related costs of more than $380 million. The measure also included a provision that expands eligibility for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and/or the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Lawmakers allowed persons with felony drug convictions to access public benefits after completing their sentence or if they are satisfactorily serving a probation sentence. An estimated 9,600 women in Alabama may be eligible for public benefits due to this reform. The advocacy was anchored by Alabama Arise, a statewide nonpartisan coalition of 150 congregations and community groups and hundreds of individuals united in their belief that low-income people are suffering because of state policy decisions.


Lauren Johnson, a formerly incarcerated activist, anchored a legislative campaign to expand food stamp eligibility to persons with prior felony drug convictions. The measure was included in Senate Bill 200 — a sunset law partially consolidating the state’s health and human services system — which included an amendment, championed by senior State Representative Senfronia Thompson, making people with felony drug convictions eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Johnson organized a coalition of interests in support of the measure that included state advocacy organizations like the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Feeding Texas, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. A salient strategy prioritized elevating the voices of faith leaders to support the policy change. The coalition worked with Doots Dufour, a Catholic deacon and director of the Criminal Justice Ministries for the Diocese of Austin, to raise public awareness on why expanding food stamps was so important. The Christian Life Commission also supported the effort.

Efforts to reinstate the federal ban in other states

Despite reforms, there is also a need to monitor and address regressive legislation to reinstate the federal ban. Recently, Pennsylvania lawmakers advanced legislation to restore the lifetime ban on public benefits for persons convicted of drug distribution offenses. Despite recent reforms in Missouri, lawmakers introduced a measure to restrict public benefits for persons with prior felony convictions; the final version of the bill, passed by the legislature, did not include this provision due to strong advocacy opposition. Maine’s governor also championed legislation to restrict public benefits for persons with prior felony drug convictions.

Other news

Alaska – The Criminal Justice Commission launched a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice system as part of the national Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Illinois – Lawmakers advanced several criminal justice reforms including a measure that would divert juvenile misdemeanants from state juvenile facilities, and would eliminate mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth under 18 at the time of the offense.

Michigan – Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a state advocacy group, released a report highlighting two dozen policy changes that could reduce the state’s prison population. The report calls for the establishment of presumptive parole, which would grant supervised release to prisoners when they reach their minimum sentence.

New York – More than 60 advocacy organizations sent an open letter to the governor and legislators urging passage of Raise the Age legislation. New York and North Carolina are the only two states that still prosecute all 16- and 17-year-olds in the justice system as adults. The legislation failed to clear all hurdles before the session ended.

Virginia – Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order, establishing a commission to examine reinstating parole, two decades after it was abolished by then Gov. George Allen amid a wave of tough-on-crime laws across the country.

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