Should Ex-Drug Offenders Receive Food Stamps?

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Currently, Texas does not allow ex-drug offenders to apply for food stamp benefits once they’re released from jail. But a bill heard in the House Human Services committee this afternoon aims to eliminate that ban.

House Bill 3397 by state Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, calls for Texas to opt out of the federal law that keeps drug offenders released from jail from qualifying and receiving benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps. Reintegrating into the community is a large hurdle for ex-offenders—it’s difficult to find a job and proper housing, let alone money to purchase food. Since SNAP is a federal program, the federal government determines the guidelines. Under current law, only drug offenders fall under than ban. Any other criminal is eligible for food stamps, and Congress gives states the option to waive the ban on ex-drug offenders.

Sandra Crenshaw with the Leadership and Accountability program in Dallas County, told committee members that the opportunity to purchase healthy, quality food helps keep former drug addicts and ex-offenders from spiraling back into a drug habit.

“Nutrition plays a very important role in your ability to stay off of drugs,” she said. “It helps replace the desire to have drugs.”

Celia Cole with the Center for Public Policy Priorities also argued in favor of the bill, urging members to “embrace redemption” and extend help to those who need help reentering everyday society. Cole acknowledged that in this tight budget crunch, state programs that offer reintegration and reentry services for ex-offenders are on the chopping block, but opening SNAP benefits to this population wouldn’t cost the state any money.

“Here we have this 100 percent federally funded that not only pays for food stamps but employment services,” she said. “For this population that is so badly in need of help, we can draw down federal dollars. We simply have to exercise the option that Congress gave us to eliminate the ban.”

State Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, who has a bill this session that would require food stamp applicants to take a drug test as part of the application process, isn’t thrilled with the measure. She took this afternoon’s hearing, however, as an opportunity to question Cole on her own bill.

“Do you think that if we were to change (the ban) and open it up for convicted users that they should be taking drug tests in order to qualify?” the Republican from Parker asked. Federal law, Cole responded, keeps states from drug testing for government assistance programs.

Lifting the ban would not only help ex-offenders but Texans like Diane Bartlett of Austin, who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to her testimony today, the unemployed 54-year-old served jail time when she was arrested in 2000 for drugs that were found in her home. Bartlett told the committee the drugs belong to her addicted brother, and because he was living in her home after being released from jail, she was the one convicted. Since being released, she hasn’t been able to find a job. To earn money for food, Bartlett has been donating plasma and participating in medical studies.

“I’ve never bought drugs, never used drugs, and I’ve never failed a drug test in my life,” she said. “But I have a monkey on my back that I’ll carry for the rest of my life.”