Alabama and Texas Lift Bans on Public Assistance for Individuals Previously Convicted of Drug-Related Crimes

By Randi Hall

The 1990s “War on Drugs” led to the implementation of laws that single out individuals previously convicted of drug-related felonies for disproportionate and lasting penalties.  The 1996 welfare law denied such individuals access to both cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and nutrition assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unless states chose to opt-out or modify the ban.  Most states have done so, recognizing that these bans are unjustified as a “double punishment” for individuals who have completed their prison term while making it harder for  people to readjust to society.

This summer, both Alabama and Texas joined the list of state that have modified or repealed these bans. Starting in January 2016, Alabama will override the full bans that have prohibited individuals from accessing either SNAP or TANF. The Texas law only modified the ban affecting SNAP, but will go into effect in September 2015. Texas SNAP recipients who violate parole or are convicted of another drug-related charge would still be denied further SNAP receipt. Both states passed their respective policy changes via prison and criminal justice reform bills, rather than legislation focused on public assistance programs.

In a policy brief, CLASP has detailed the detrimental consequences of preventing ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society from accessing income and work supports. Parents with a drug felony conviction face economic discrimination when searching for employment, making access to programs like SNAP vital for families with children facing food insecurity.  Moreover, SNAP recipients are eligible for employment and training services , which would support ex-offenders in gaining the skills needed to secure stable jobs. Similarly, banning TANF benefits for ex-offenders reduces the cash assistance a family may receive and may also reduce access to other supportive services, such as child care and transportation services, needed to find employment.  The effects of these bans fall lopsidedly on communities of color due to the disproportionate enforcement and prosecution of drug laws in these communities.

As of July 2015, only seven states continue to enforce a full lifetime drug felony ban on SNAP benefits, while twelve states have kept lifetime bans for TANF receipt in place.  CLASP urges the remaining states to reflect on the hardships created by such laws and to lift these bans on public benefits.