February 19, 2016

Lawmakers consider lifting lifetime ban on food stamps for reformed drug felons

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Should a lifetime ban on food stamps for reformed drug felons be lifted? State Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, believes Indiana should join 39 other states that have lifted the lifetime prohibition on food benefits. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) also supports lifting the ban.

Broden’s proposal, Senate Bill 132, would allow convicted drug felons to receive access to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they meet certain criteria, including showing they are actively working to reform their lives.

The proposal allows individuals to receive food stamp assistance under SNAP if: 1) the individual has not received any other drug convictions during the previous five years; and 2) the person is actively participating in some form of legitimate substance abuse program which includes drug testing to ensure the individual is not using drugs.

The House Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee heard Senate Bill 132 on Feb.10. Representative David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the panel, did not take a vote, but heard compelling testimony in support of the legislation.

Currently, Indiana bans persons convicted of a drug felony from receiving food stamps. The ban is permanent and is not lifted even after the individual pays restitution and reforms his or her life. Legitimate need for food is irrelevant under the current law if the person has been convicted of a drug felony.

Broden said he became aware of the issue a few years ago when a constituent, who attends his parish and is employed at a halfway house, brought this concern to his attention. After listening to this concern, Broden said he thought it was unfair that a person could commit a sexual offense or an armed robbery and still receive food stamps, but if caught with 31 grams of marijuana could never get food stamps again. The senator said that when he looked into this further, he found out the constituent was right.

“My goal is to get some change in this policy,” Broden said. “I believe it’s important that those people who have served their time, and as the old adage goes, paid their debt to society, shouldn’t be singled out for their offense when those convicted of other felonies can go and get SNAP benefits.” Broden added he was very encouraged earlier this session when he heard Gov. Mike Pence and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush say that the state is not going to incarcerate its way out of the drug problem in Indiana.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, who serves as the legislative and public policy spokesperson for the Church in Indiana, testified in support of Senate Bill 132.

“All persons have a right to food and shelter,” Tebbe said. “Individuals released from jail or prison after serving their sentence have many obstacles when rejoining the community.” Tebbe noted that in addition to culture and family adjustments, employment is often denied because of their conviction and prison record, which contributes to recidivism. When jobs are available, often these are temporary or part time.

Tebbe said that food stamp assistance is tangible and needed.

“This benefit will go a long way to assisting persons to maintain themselves and their dignity,” he said. “While food banks are willing and provide assistance, these institutions are stretched to serve all who are in need,” he noted. “Moreover, denying aid to those convicted of a drug felony makes it costlier for some non-profit agencies like homeless centers, women shelters and Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Centers to provide services for those convicted of a drug felony. The money for these meals comes from the non-profits’ operating budgets. It is money that would be better spent on other needed services like education and counseling.”

Cheryl Ashe of South Bend, a volunteer and long-time advocate for lifting the food assistance ban, said when individuals leave prison they typically go live with their families. While families can provide housing, they may not be able to provide food. She said that those who do not receive SNAP benefits may have to go to two or three food banks per week to get enough food, and bus routes do not always go near the locations of food pantries.

Senate Bill 132 passed the Senate by a 43-7 vote. The bill was held for another week of hearings in the House Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee.

Tebbe said he expects the panel to hear further testimony, and he is hopeful the bill will pass out of committee, then move to the House floor for passage before the end of February.
 

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, its Indiana Catholic Action Network and the bills it is following in the Indiana General Assembly this year, log on to www.indianacc.org.)

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