January 26, 2018

Panel passes nutrition eligibility plan for reformed drug felons

By Brigid Curtis Ayers

A proposal to lift a ban on nutrition program eligibility for reformed drug felons advanced in the Senate. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the measure.

Indiana is one of a handful of states that bans convicted drug felons from receiving certain federally operated nutrition benefits. If Sen. Michael Bohacek, R-Michigan City, has his way, former drug felons who meet certain criteria to reform their lives would be eligible for food assistance under the federal program called Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP.

Senate Bill 11, authored by Bohacek, would remove the permanent ban from food assistance under SNAP for convicted drug felons as long as they follow their parole guidelines or their release plan determined by the court. The bill was passed 7-0 by the Senate Family and Children Services panel on Jan. 11.

“When someone is released from prison, the goal is to reintegrate them into society and to make them a productive member,” said Bohacek. “And we do that by providing the supports to be able to become productive.

“When someone is incarcerated, they have been separated from family and friends,” he added. “They’ve lost a lot of connections. And depending on the crime, especially if it’s a drug crime, they may not be eligible for public housing or certain licensing in certain occupations, and now we are restricting them from nutrition.

“If they move back in with family—as many of them do—if the family is eligible for SNAP and the felon is not, they are going to be utilizing the program as well,” continued Bohacek. “They are going to be taking the SNAP benefits designed for four people and now it’s feeding five. To me, it’s high time to give these folks the tools to keep them out of the judicial system and out of prison.”

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC who serves as the public policy spokesperson for the bishops in Indiana, testified in support of the bill before the Senate panel. “All persons have a right to food and shelter. Individuals, after serving their sentence and being released from jail or prison, have many obstacles when rejoining the community,” he said. “In addition to family adjustments, employment is often denied because of the conviction and prison record. Many employers refuse to hire them, which contributes to recidivism. When jobs are available, often these are temporary or part time. SNAP assistance is tangible and needed. This benefit will go a long way to help people maintain themselves and their dignity.

“Persons who have paid their debt and attempting to rectify past mistakes should be given the opportunity to prove themselves and be eligible for support and programs that can assist them and affirm their human dignity,” continued Tebbe. “Current law banning food assistance tends to punish someone after that person has already made restitution for their misdeeds. Assisting those to change their lives for the better is what all persons deserve, and I believe how Jesus responded to all those who sought his help.”

Cheryl Ashe, a volunteer with Dismas House of South Bend since 2007, helps reintegrate people into society after they leave prison. “Family members can offer a sofa or couch to sleep on, but food is a problem,” she said. “Even with SNAP, people still must go to one or two food pantries a month. Most can get their canned goods and bread at a food pantry, but use their SNAP benefits to buy milk, meat, eggs and other dairy items.

“A single person with no dependents, who is not working, gets $192 per month in SNAP benefits,” Ashe noted. “A single person without dependents can only receive SNAP benefits for three months every three years, unless they are working 20 hours per week, enrolled in an approved job training program or disabled.”

Ashe, who chairs the social justice committee at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend, said some families are denied SNAP because of how the benefit formula works. She explained that there are households with children that are denied SNAP benefits because the parent who was previously convicted of a drug felony is not counted.

“If the parent were counted in the calculation for the household, the household would be eligible for SNAP,” she said. “Families and children are hurt under current law due to the SNAP benefits ban for former drug felons.”

Tebbe said he expects Senate Bill 11 to pass the full Senate before the third reading deadline which is on Feb. 6. If Senate Bill 11 passes the Senate, it will move to the Indiana House for further consideration.

For more information on the ICC’s priority bills, go to www.indianacc.org .

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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