Indiana lawmakers consider lifting lifetime ban on food stamps for reformed drug felons

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

INDIANAPOLIS — Should a lifetime ban on food stamps for reformed drug felons be lifted? State Senator John Broden, D-South Bend, believes Indiana should join the 39 other states that have lifted the lifetime prohibition on food benefits. The Indiana Catholic Conference 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 SB 132, 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 goes to his parish and works at a halfway house, brought this concern to his attention. After listening to this constituent’s concern, Broden said he thought this was wrong, that those who commit a sexual offense or commit armed robbery can get food stamps. Broden said that after investigating, he discovered the constituent was correct.

Broden said, “My goal is to get some change in this policy. I believe it’s important for those people who have served their time, and as the old adage goes, paid their debt to society, they shouldn’t be singled out for their offense when those convicted of other felonies can go and get SNAP benefits.” Broden said he was very encouraged earlier this session when he heard Gov. Pence and 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 Indiana Catholic Conference, testified in support of SB 132. “All persons have a right to food and shelter,” said Tebbe. “Individuals, after serving their sentence and are released from jail or prison, have many obstacles when rejoining the community.”

Tebbe noted that in addition to the culture and family adjustments, employment is often denied because of the conviction and prison record and many employers refuse to hire them, 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. While food banks are willing and provide assistance, these institutions are stretched to serve all who are in need,” said Tebbe.

“Moreover, denying aid to those convicted of a drug felony makes it costlier for some nonprofit agencies like homeless centers, women shelters and Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Centers to provide services for those convicted of a drug felony,” said Tebbe. “The money for these meals comes from the nonprofits operating budgets. 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 a 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 the bus routes do not always go near the locations of food pantries.

The drug felon ban was enacted in Aug. of 1996 with the national Welfare Reform Act. It allowed states the choice to make former drug offenders ineligible for the federal SNAP food assistance benefits, a move intended to discourage drug offenders from exchanging food stamps for drugs. Indiana Department of Workforce Development reports that nearly three-quarters of Hoosier employers are reluctant or refuse to hire former offenders.

Senate Bill 132 passed the Senate, 43-7. 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, and move to the House floor for passage before the end of February.

Posted on February 16, 2016, to: