Recent State Efforts on Felony Bans Underscore Case for Federal Action 

By Darrel Thompson 

Federal legislation in 1996 changed, in dramatic fashion, how people with low incomes receive assistance from state and federal government. One such change banned people with drug-related felony convictions from nutritional assistance under SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and cash assistance under TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). SNAP and TANF are federal programs administered by the states. And federal law allows states to modify the SNAP and TANF bans. Fortunately, most states have moved toward lifting the bans in some manner. Twenty-four states have modified the ban on SNAP, with 22 states doing so for TANF. States can also opt out of the bans altogether, which 26 states have done for SNAP and 18 states for TANF. (South Carolina is the lone state with a full ban on SNAP and 9 states maintain a ban on TANF.)  

In the intervening years, the policy—in states where it remains—has been deeply stigmatizing and has devastated the financial security and overall wellbeing of people with criminal records. Formerly incarcerated people and their families already face a host of collateral consequences. For one, they cite very high rates of food insecurity—reaching upwards of 90 percent. Denying returning community members access to food and cash assistance simply increases hardship and leads to higher levels of recidivism. Likewise, many of these consequences make it difficult for them to find work. Nearly half of all employers review applicants’ criminal backgrounds. And even though the overall unemployment rate is 3.6 percent, it’s 27.3 percent for formerly incarcerated people. When asked directly, 76 percent of them report finding a job as “very difficult or nearly impossible.”

Fortunately, just this year, two more states lifted restrictions on accessing these basic needs programs. 

In April, Mississippi lifted its ban on SNAP and TANF. As many as 67,000 Mississippians with felony drug convictions could receive food assistance as a result. Mississippi’s ban removal is particularly notable given the state has the lowest TANF benefits ($170 in July 2017) for a family of three of any state in the country and the highest rejection rate (above 90 percent) for TANF of any state in the country. In March, West Virginia also lifted its ban on SNAP.

But such patchwork justice is unacceptable and is less than what formerly incarcerated people deserve. The federal government must act at once to provide access to basic needs programs everywhere, and some members of Congress are taking steps to make change. 

Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Karen Bass (D-CA) have introduced the REDEEM Act, a compendium of smart justice reforms. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) will be introducing the Senate version. One of the bill’s provisions eliminates the ban on SNAP and TANF for people previously convicted of drug-related felonies, and prevents states from adding such restrictions. The bill would reduce hardship, expand opportunity, and prevent recidivism for returning community members. The REDEEM Act, which acknowledges and supports more fully the rights of justice-involved people, is a solution that’s both morally urgent and achievable, considering the broad bipartisan support enjoyed by some criminal justice reform.  

CLASP calls on Congress to pass the REDEEM Act, recognizing the imperative to dismantle the many collateral consequences which impede formerly incarcerated people’s reentry.  

Passing the REDEEM Act is the sensible thing to do—it is the moral thing to do.