A push to end the lifetime SNAP ban for former drug offenders

The problem of food insecurity among people with past convictions

Food insecurity is a serious issue that affects millions of Americans, especially those who have been involved in the criminal justice system. According to a 2022 report by the Sentencing Project, about 4.9 million people in the U.S. have a felony drug conviction on their record. Many of them face barriers to finding employment, housing, education, and other basic needs after serving their sentences. One of the most severe and lasting consequences of a drug conviction is the lifetime ban on receiving food stamps, or SNAP benefits, in some states.

SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a federal program that provides monthly assistance to low-income households to buy food. SNAP helps reduce hunger, improve health, and support economic activity. However, under a 1996 federal law, people who are convicted of a felony involving the possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance are permanently ineligible for SNAP, unless states opt out or modify the ban. This means that millions of people who have paid their debt to society are still denied access to a vital safety net that could help them rebuild their lives and prevent recidivism.

A push to end the lifetime SNAP ban for former drug offenders

The impact of the lifetime SNAP ban on individuals and families

The lifetime SNAP ban disproportionately affects people of color, who are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for drug offenses than white people, despite similar rates of drug use. The ban also harms the children, spouses, and dependents of former drug offenders, who may rely on SNAP to meet their nutritional needs. According to a 2020 study by the Urban Institute, about 11% of SNAP households include an adult with a felony conviction, and about 40% of those households have children. By denying SNAP benefits to former drug offenders, the lifetime ban not only punishes them, but also their innocent family members, who may experience food insecurity, poverty, and poor health outcomes as a result.

The lifetime SNAP ban also undermines the goals of rehabilitation and reintegration for people who have completed their sentences. Research shows that access to food assistance can reduce recidivism rates, increase employment prospects, and improve mental health for formerly incarcerated people. Conversely, lack of food assistance can increase the risk of homelessness, substance abuse, and criminal behavior. For example, a 2018 study by the University of South Carolina found that women who were subject to the lifetime SNAP ban were more likely to return to prison within a year of release than those who were not. By restricting access to food assistance, the lifetime SNAP ban creates a vicious cycle of hunger, poverty, and incarceration that is hard to break.

The efforts to repeal the lifetime SNAP ban at the state and federal level

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to repeal the lifetime SNAP ban at both the state and federal level. As of 2023, 24 states and the District of Columbia have opted out of the ban completely, and 21 states have modified the ban to allow SNAP eligibility for certain categories of drug offenders or under certain conditions, such as completing drug treatment or probation. Only five states – Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming – still enforce the full lifetime ban.

At the federal level, a bipartisan bill called the RESTORE Act was introduced in 2023 as part of the Farm Bill. The bill would remove the lifetime SNAP ban for people with felony drug convictions, and allow states to determine their own eligibility criteria for SNAP applicants and recipients. The bill has received support from various advocacy groups, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as from former drug offenders and their families, who have shared their stories and struggles with food insecurity. The bill’s sponsors and supporters argue that repealing the lifetime SNAP ban would promote human dignity, racial justice, public health, and public safety.


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