Nutrition Access for All – Two Ways We’re Working to Protect Missourians at Risk

There are many ways in which the anti-poverty issues that Empower Missouri works on intersect. Repealing the SNAP ban for people with past drug felony convictions has been a core advocacy issue for the Food Security Coalition and Community Justice Coalition for many years, and we are excited to report on some major bill movements this legislative session that would make this change a reality. The legislation advanced this session would also guarantee certain protections for a particularly vulnerable group: pregnant people incarcerated in jail. The removal of the SNAP ban and protections for pregnant folks in jail both highlight the importance of policy changes that uplift families.

Ending the SNAP Ban: Food Access for All

Currently in Missouri, when someone has a drug felony on their record, even after they have served their time or completed their probation term and are working hard to be a productive member of society, they are unable access the support of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides support for the most basic of human needs, food. The ban is lifelong, and impacts not just the individual, but other family members such as children that those benefits would support. This ban only applies to drug felonies, not other types of offenses, despite the wealth of research that shows that substance use is best approached as a public health concern rather than a criminal one. When originally passed, this federal law was intended to be a get-tough-on-crime measure, but it has failed to consider the reality of addiction or the notion of second chances. Twenty-nine other states, including Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida, have opted out of this federal law and extended SNAP benefits to those with old drug felonies. According to a report released by the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center, Missouri has “one of the nation’s most stringent bans for receiving SNAP benefits.”

The evidence clearly shows that laws which permanently ban individuals with criminal convictions from accessing food do not work to deter future crimes. In fact, the exact opposite tends to become true. Increasingly punitive bans can actually increase recidivism, driven in part by financially motivated crimes and the need to access the most basic human needs and provide for dependents. To the extent increased recidivism drives higher incarceration costs, taxpayers suffer the consequences of this failed policy. Ending the SNAP ban is a pro-family solution, opening pathways to a second chance for parents with a criminal history by simply allowing them access to the most basic human needs. Conviction records paint a clear picture of racial disparity as well: Black Americans are six times as likely to go to prison for a drug offense than white Americans. Black households experience food insecurity at a rate of 21 percent, while white households experience food insecurity at a rate of 8 percent. As a result, the impact of the SNAP ban is felt disproportionately by Black Missouri families.

When transitioning from jail or prison, people with convictions often face levels of food insecurity far higher than the general public. Ninety-one percent of people released from prison reported that they experience food insecurity, according to the National Institutes of Health. This disparity extends to people on probation supervision: a 2018 study found that over 70 percent of those on probation experienced food insecurity, compared to roughly 13 percent of the general population.The reduction in recidivism supported by benefits is also backed by research, with a recent Harvard study finding that access to SNAP and TANF significantly reduced an individual’s risk of being reincarcerated by up to 10 percent.

Addiction and substance use have historically been criminalized by policies, such as the SNAP felony drug ban. As the country begins to shift from this approach and instead view these issues through a public health lens, policies that punish those who have a history of substance use by permanently barring them from accessing fundamental benefits stand out as exceptionally harsh. There is no evidence that a criminalized approach works, with an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts finding no statistically significant relationship between state drug imprisonment rates and three indicators of state drug problems: self-reported drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests.  For someone struggling with addiction, rehabilitation and recovery or recidivism and relapse can be the difference between life and death. Adding more obstacles to reentry for people who already have an uphill battle is both illogical and inhumane. Instead of extra punishments, people who have interacted with the criminal legal system due to substance use should be supported with treatment options and community resources. 

Pregnancy While Incarcerated: A Dangerous Double Sentence

In 2018, the Missouri legislature passed SB 870, a law which ended the practice of using restraints or “shackling” pregnant people incarcerated in Missouri prisons during transportation and medical appointments in the third trimester, labor, delivery, and for 48 hours postpartum. This was an important first step to protecting the rights of pregnant incarcerated Missourians, but the law did not extend protections to people in county jails, or require that certain pre- and post- natal health care needs be met. Each year, at least 128,000 different people are booked into local jails in Missouri- clearly, any policy aimed at supporting incarcerated people needs to take this population into account. Current proposed legislation would expand these anti-shackling protections to anyone incarcerated while pregnant in local jails, many of which are notorious for their substandard conditions. 

A first of its kind study conducted by the Pregnancy in Prison Statistics Project found that 3 percent of females entering jail were pregnant at intake. Jail is a traumatic and challenging environment for anyone, let alone someone experiencing the physical and emotional rollercoaster of pregnancy. Poor health care and unsafe restraint practices can have a devastating impact on both the mother and the fetus. The practice of using restraints on pregnant, laboring, and postpartum individuals is both demeaning and dangerous. This practice has long been opposed by major medical organizations such as the American Medical Association, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and American Public Health Association. Eliminating this practice should extend to all those detained in Missouri, regardless of the carceral system in which they are detained. 

Incarcerated individuals face unique barriers to health care, and those who are pregnant and postpartum are at increased risk of negative health outcomes; yet, their health care needs remain largely unaddressed in Missouri correctional facilities. The current proposed legislation would require Missouri jails to develop procedures for maternal health evaluations, prenatal vitamins, nutritional guidelines for pregnant people including 2,500 daily calories, substance abuse treatment, treatment for HIV and Hepatitis C, sleeping arrangements allowing pregnant individuals to sleep on the bottom bunk, access to mental health professionals, sanitary materials, and postpartum recovery, including that no one be placed in isolation during the postpartum period. Future legislative efforts to extend these same protections to pregnant people in DOC custody should be advanced, and Empower Missouri will continue to join other advocates in working to achieve this goal. 

Current Legislation

HB 1777, sponsored by Representative Chad Perkins, a Republican from Bowling Green, and co-sponsored by Representative Kimberly-Ann Collins, a Democrat from St. Louis city, would opt Missouri out of the optional Federal provision to ban SNAP benefits to individuals with drug felonies on their record. The bill would also guarantee protections for pregnant people incarcerated in Missouri jails, such as banning the use of restraints, ensuring nutritional needs are met, and providing pre- and post- natal care. HB 1777 was heard in the House Committee on Corrections and Public Institutions on January 31, where a wide array of advocates turned out in support of the bill. On February 8, the bill was combined with several other bills that Empower Missouri supports before being unanimously voted out of committee: HB 2203, which would offer good time credit for the completion of educational and restorative justice programs in DOC, HB 2059, which would ban the use of restraints in juvenile court, and HB 2502, which would require the DOC to provide vital documents (state ID, birth certificate, social security card) and employment readiness materials to individuals preparing for release from prison. The bill was then sent to the Regulatory Rules and Oversight Committee, which unanimously voted it out on February 19. Stay tuned for more updates as this bill makes its way to the Senate.

In the Senate, there are two bills that mirror the language in HB 1777: SB 905, sponsored by Senator Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a Republican from Jefferson County, and SB 1012, sponsored by Senator Lauren Arthur, a Democrat from Kansas City. Both bills have been assigned to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. We expect a hearing scheduled in this committee on these bills soon. To stay in the loop on these bills and learn about advocacy on similar issues, connect with the Community Justice Coalition y el Coalición de seguridad alimentaria today.

Otras lecturas:

Deja una respuesta