In Six States, a Felony Drug Conviction Still Comes With a Lifetime Food-Stamp Ban

Bill Clinton’s welfare reform law enacted criminal punishment that outlasts prison terms.
(Photo: USDA/Flickr)
Feb 16, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

In early February, a council appointed by Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal recommended the state lift its lifetime ban on food stamps for people with felony drug convictions. If a vote from Georgia’s General Assembly lifts the prohibition, the state would follow Alabama’s recent repeal and Texas’ modification of the ban, which is a waning holdover from President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform law that restricted benefits for drug felons but not for people with other felony convictions.

According to Pew Charitable Trust data compiled by The Marshall Project, 18 states have abandoned the federal prohibition, and 26 other states have partially eased restrictions, providing benefits if the recipient meets certain requirements, including parole and drug treatment compliance. That leaves just six states that fully enforce the 20-year-old ban: Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

“This specific law has always irked me,” said Lauren Johnson of Reentry Roundtable, a nonprofit in Austin, Texas, that provides support for people coming out of the prison system. Johnson, who has four felony drug convictions herself, has been called a powerhouse advocate for criminal justice reform on the level of Erin Brockovich. “It irked me before it affected me, but it really irked me after it affected me.”

In 2008, after her husband was laid off, Johnson applied for SNAP benefits. She received assistance for her three small children but not for her or her husband, who also has felony drug convictions on his record.

“I just found it infuriating that they would hand me a card with benefits but say, ‘We don’t trust you with food stamps, but we’ll give you this card for your kids’—effectively punishing my whole family for something I’ve already paid for,” she said.

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“Individuals who have arrests and convictions for drug offenses are sentenced to prison or probation. This policy—restricting people from accessing public safety benefit programs—is not part of the sentence,” said Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project.

Porter pointed out that many of these people have already paid into public safety net programs through their income and state taxes, and the lifetime duration of the ban means that individuals are prohibited from accessing benefits 20 or 30 years after they have paid their criminal debt.

When Johnson began to advocate for reform at the Texas capitol, she saw where lawmakers’ thinking was stuck. “What’s to stop these people from just living on these food stamps and not making an effort?” a legislator asked her.

“I started telling him my story, and it was no longer about ‘those people.’ It was about me being in the room,” she said. (As of Sept. 1, 2015, first-time drug felons in Texas are eligible for food stamps provided they comply with the conditions of their parole and do not commit a second offense while receiving assistance. Those who violate their probation or parole are ineligible for benefits for two years. If they are convicted of another felony, drug-related or otherwise, they are barred for life.)

The bans, which also includes cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, disproportionately impacts women. In 2009, 85.9 percent of adult TANF recipients were women, and data from the Pew Research Center found women were more than twice as likely to receive SNAP benefits as men. Overlay those numbers with the statistics from the “war on drugs”—during which women became much more likely to be convicted of a felony or sentenced to prison than in previous eras—and a gender gap reveals itself. From 1980 to 2010, the number of women in prison rose by 646 percent, compared with a 419 percent increase for men. By 2011, 25 percent of women in state prisons were incarcerated for drug offenses, compared with 16 percent of men.

Thomas Worthy, cochair of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, pointed out the connection between adults with convictions affected by the policy and those indirectly affected—their dependents.

“This is certainly something that the General Assembly should consider, especially considering that many of the individuals that suffer from this lifetime ban are children,” Worthy told Atlanta’s NPR station.

“The hierarchy of needs says we need food, shelter, and clothing before we can worry about anything else. You’re taking away access to one of the most basic human needs,” Johnson said. “There’s no reason to discriminate against someone who has already paid their debt, as if they had more potential than anybody else to commit another crime.”