A Drug Conviction Should Not Mean a Lifetime of Hunger

In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), sometimes known as the welfare reform bill. Buried deep within that sweeping legislation was a provision that hardly received any debate, but has had lifelong implications for millions of Americans. This provision imposed a lifetime ban on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program ( TANF) for those convicted of state or federal felony drug crimes. 

This policy became just one more collateral consequence that folks with a criminal record face after they have served their sentences. Collateral consequences are additional penalties that attach to a criminal conviction and are imposed long after a criminal sentence has been completed. According to Michael “Zaki” Smith of Next100, these collateral consequences are like a “silent life sentence” and “there are “44,000 laws and policies that stop formerly incarcerated from productively re-entering society”.

Unlike some of these collateral consequences, though, this federal policy has a caveat. Within the federal language it stated that states can decide for themselves whether to impose this policy or not. As of April of 2022, only one state (South Carolina) still has the complete ban in place.

In 2014, Missouri passed a law that modified the lifetime ban. Advocates had hoped for a full lift of the ban, but when only a modification was passed, advocates were hopeful that it would still help some individuals with a drug felony conviction access SNAP. Nearly 10 years later, direct service providers as well as advocates have come to realize that the modifications of the law still makes it extremely difficult for someone with a drug felony conviction to qualify for SNAP. The list of requirements that must be met are long and complicated. They include: limiting how many convictions someone can have,  requiring someone complete a drug treatment program  or be deemed not needing treatment, and submitting a negative urinalysis test ( at the client’s own expense). 

Advocates are looking at ways to change this law even further. Empower Missouri is involved in advocacy on this issue on many fronts. First, there are some administrative changes that could help make the way the current program runs clearer and easier to administer and access. Empower Missouri and other advocates are in communication with the Department of Social Services to see what administrative changes could be made without needing legislative action. Secondly, there are a few bills that have been filed on the state level that would modify the ban even further. For example,  HB2346 y HB2350 were filed this legislative session. Empower Missouri plans to have further conversations with key legislators about this issue this summer to see if any state level traction can be made in 2023. And finally, there is a lot of work happening on the Federal level to end the lifetime ban nationwide.  In last year’s budget, President Biden supported the idea of repealing the lifetime ban. Although he did not explicitly call for it this year, USDA does mention supporting that effort when the Farm Bill reauthorizations happen next year.  As Farm Bill advocacy heats up this coming year, changing this provision will be a priority for advocates across the country.

If you are interested in this issue,  Empower Missouri encourages you to get involved in the Coalición de seguridad alimentaria or the Coalición de Justicia Criminal. Reach out to Christine Woody at [email protected] para más información.

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