February 17, 2012

Food stamps ban for reformed drug offenders is being reconsidered

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Kanda and her husband were both employed and working hard to save money before their son’s birth. When the recession hit, they both unexpectedly found themselves unemployed.

Pregnant, with no income or food, Kanda applied for food stamps, but was denied. She had a previous drug-related conviction on her record, which bans her for life from receiving food stamps.

Kanda’s story is not uncommon, said Cheryl Ashe, founder of Information Referral and Ex-Offender Services, a ministry at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend, Ind., in the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, that helps ex-offenders successfully transition back into the community after incarceration.

“The road back to becoming a productive citizen is hard enough, but it is especially difficult for those who have a drug felony conviction,” Ashe said. That is something that she would like to see changed.

And Ashe is not alone.

Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, would, too. Broden, who is authoring a proposal, Senate Bill 102, to address the problem, said that he became aware of the issue when he attended a dinner at Dismas House in South Bend, and heard firsthand the frustration these individuals have encountered. To Broden’s surprise, many of them were mothers with children.

“I felt that if people could demonstrate they had successfully completed a respected drug treatment program and had remained drug free that they should be eligible to get food stamps,” Broden said.

The Indiana Catholic Conference, the Church’s official representative in the state on public policy matters, supports Broden’s proposal.

According to Ashe, the drug felon ban was introduced with the federal Welfare Reform Act as an opt-in proposal for states. It gave states the choice to make former drug offenders ineligible for Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a move intended to discourage drug offenders from exchanging food stamps for drugs. Indiana is only one of 12 states that still has a lifetime ban on people convicted of a drug felony from getting food stamps.

But once a state opts in, state officials may also decide to reverse course and opt out of the ban through legislative action. Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia have restored nutrition benefits to people with former drug offenses.

Broden’s proposal would allow Indiana to opt-out of the federal law. Senate Bill 102 would let people convicted of a drug felony receive food stamps if they meet income guidelines, are enrolled in a drug treatment program, have lived in a

non-profit halfway house, had not committed another drug offense in the last five years, and are drug tested every two months.

Broden said that while the federal legislation was well-intended, it ignores individuals who have received treatment, are in recovery and have reformed their lives.

Ashe said that an adult with no income receives about $200 a month in food stamps or $2,400 in food stamps per year. According to the Indiana Department of Corrections website, it costs an average of $54.28 per day or $19,447.20 a year to keep an adult inmate incarcerated in Indiana.

“It’s all about recidivism,” Ashe said. “When people get the help they need—be it treatment, a place to live, a supportive family or food stamps—it really helps them remain drug free, and on the road to becoming self-sufficient and contributing members to their community. But when they don’t, it increases their chances [that] they may become desperate and resort to drugs or crime.”

Ashe also said there is research showing that good nutrition really helps ease drug cravings, which helps a person stay drug free. “If an ex-offender can stay drug free, then they have less chance of committing a crime to support a drug habit,” he said.

“The federal government allows people living in drug treatment programs to use their food stamps to pay for meals furnished by the organization,” Ashe said. “This would include the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Centers in South Bend, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Gary, and shelters like the YWCA of North Central Indiana and Center for the Homeless. People in Indiana convicted of a drug offense are currently ineligible for a food stamp card.”

Allowing the clients to pay for meals using food stamps helps the organizations lower their food cost, Ashe added. “These organizations are not able to receive food stamp money for these individuals even though they are feeding them. Senate Bill 102 would allow these agencies to recoup the cost of feeding ex-offenders convicted of drug felonies.”

Even though Senate Bill 102 did not receive a hearing in the Senate, Broden said that he is hopeful the language in the bill could still have a chance of passing this year.

Broden said that he is working on finding a new home for his bill, and hopes to get it amended into an existing bill that is moving.

“And if we can’t get it passed this year, I will try again in 2013,” he said.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org.)

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