In 2017, proposals to opt out or modify the lifetime felony drug ban on public benefits were introduced in at least three states. North Dakota eliminated a seven-year ban on receipt of food stamps for individuals with felony drug convictions. Maryland passed legislation that limited ineligibility to public assistance for certain serious felony drug offenses. Louisiana is also considering similar legislation.
In many states, individuals with a felony conviction related to drugs are subject to restrictions or bans from receiving food assistance under SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), cash assistance under TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), or both. This is a result of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which included a provision that denies SNAP and TANF benefits to individuals with felony drug convictions. This lifetime ban applies to all individuals regardless of whether they served their sentence in jail or prison or under community supervision.
Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia maintain restrictions for these programs.
Louisiana Considers Changes to Food Assistance Rules
Lawmakers will consider House Bill 177, legislation that would eliminate the restriction on SNAP benefits, though not for TANF support, for individuals with felony drug convictions. Currently individuals in Louisiana who have felony drug convictions are ineligible to receive SNAP benefits for a year after their completion of sentence. The legislation is one of several criminal justice reform bills that have been introduced as part of a bipartisan package to reduce the state’s rate of incarceration through sentencing code reform and recidivism reduction initiatives.
Maryland Adopts Changes to Felony Drug Ban
State lawmakers authorized House Bill 863, a measure that repealed certain provisions relating to the federal lifetime ban on food or cash assistance. The measure eliminates testing or treatment requirements for individuals with felony drug convictions who applied for social supports. Maryland lawmakers modified the federal ban in 2000, requiring testing and other conditions for eligibility after a waiting period. For example, persons convicted of felony drug offenses were not eligible for public assistance for one year after the date of conviction and were required to comply with testing and drug treatment for two years following sentence completion. HB 863 limits ineligibility of public benefits to persons convicted of felony volume dealing or found to be drug kingpins.
North Dakota Eliminates Waiting Period for Food Assistance
The governor signed House Bill 1041 which eliminated the ban on receiving assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for individuals convicted of a felony drug offense. Previously individuals convicted of felony possession or distribution of controlled substances were ineligible to receive SNAP benefits for seven years after their most recent felony conviction. HB 1041 includes other reforms such as reducing drug possession from a Class C felony to a Class A misdemeanor for first time offenses and establishing presumptive probation for low-level nonviolent felony offenses.
- Louisiana – Groups rallied in support of a bipartisan sentencing reform package that includes recalibrating sentence lengths and addressing parole eligibility to reduce the prison population.
- Massachusetts – A coalition of state lawmakers in collaboration with criminal justice reform groups called for broader sentencing reforms to include eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses and addressing racial disparity.
- Nebraska – The governor vetoed a bill that would have restored voting rights to people with felony convictions as soon as they complete their prison, probation or parole sentence. Advocates have announced plans to attempt a veto override.
- New Jersey – State advocates are asking the governor to sign parole reform legislation. The legislation allows for the release from prison of persons evaluated as low-risk after they have completed their basic sentence, provided that they have committed no serious disciplinary infractions and have participated in rehabilitation programs while incarcerated. The governor has until May 1st to sign the bill.
- Ohio – Lawmakers are considering SB 66, legislation that would eliminate prison as an option for technical parole violations and expand prison diversion for low-level felony offenses.
- Vermont – Senators approved the House bill that establishes a 13-member committee to review the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems and make recommendations for how the state can address racial disparities.
How Many People Are Spending Over a Decade in Prison?
In 2019, over half of the people in U.S. prisons – amounting to more than 770,000 people – were serving sentences of 10 years or longer – a huge jump from 2000.