This year, Mississippi and West Virginia joined the list of states that have signed legislation to remove the lifetime ban on public benefits for those formerly convicted of drug-related crimes, joining the Virgin Islands, Washington, D.C., and twenty-two other states.
Six states have eased restrictions or removed the ban entirely since 2016, while Pennsylvania reinstated a modified ban in 2018. Proponents of the ban assert that public dollars should go to those who need it most. Opponents argue that lifting the drug felony ban will lead to less food insecurity among families and decreased recidivism rates.
Congress enacted major welfare reform legislation in 1996, tightening requirements on public benefit recipients and giving states more flexibility in administering social welfare programs.
Among the new requirements was one that disqualified individuals from accessing public benefits if they have been convicted of a federal or state offense for the possession, use or distribution of a controlled substance.
As a result, tens of thousands of people became ineligible for anti-poverty programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). However, Congress granted states the ability to opt out of enforcing the requirement for public benefit eligibility.
The vast majority of states have opted out of the restriction or imposed less severe restrictions through a modified ban. Examples of modified approaches include:
- Limiting the circumstances in which the permanent disqualification applies (in the cases when convictions involve the sale of drugs).
- Requiring the convicted person to submit to drug testing.
- Requiring participation in a drug treatment program.
- Imposing a two-year temporary disqualification period for those who violate parole.
Research from Harvard University’s Olin Center for Law, Economics and Businesses found recently released felons who are provided full public benefit access, including nutrition services, are less likely to return to prison within a year.
Former convicts encounter a variety of obstacles after leaving prison from employment barriers to emotional trauma. Access to programs like SNAP and TANF provides significant support for individuals as they re-enter society. Recognizing the effects of the lifetime ban, forty-nine states, the Virgin islands, and D.C. have modified or removed it entirely to reduce food insecurity and give former convicts a second chance.
Chesterfield Polkey is the Emerson Hunger Fellow at NCSL.