States Remove SNAP, TANF Penalties that Undermined the Formerly Incarcerated

By Victoria Palacio

For people with felony convictions, even those who haven’t been to prison, it’s challenging to find employment to support themselves and their families. This problem is compounded by collateral consequences, such as losing the right to vote and legal restrictions on employment, housing, and educational opportunities.

Thirty-seven states restrict eligibility for people with drug-related felony convictions under SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) food assistance and/or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash assistance. Eleven states entirely block people with such convictions from receiving cash assistance under TANF and six do not allow them to receive nutritional supports under SNAP, while the others have modified bans.  

SNAP and TANF are crucial support programs that increase stability for economically vulnerable populations, including people leaving the criminal justice system. Food and cash assistance can reduce recidivism and make drug treatment participants more likely to complete their programs.  

A growing number of states have realized that blocking SNAP and TANF access undermines formerly incarcerated people, as well as their communities. Already in 2017, Indiana, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Maryland have taken big steps toward eliminating this penalty.

Indiana passed a law to eliminate the rule blocking people with felony drug convictions from accessing SNAP for one year after the end of their sentence, and Louisiana is considering similar legislation. North Dakota passed a similar bill; prior to the new legislation, people with felony drug convictions were unable to access SNAP for seven years after their conviction. Lastly, Maryland passed a law that eliminates testing requirements for SNAP and TANF applicants with felony drug convictions. These laws follow reforms in other states over the past few years.

For formerly incarcerated people, SNAP and TANF provide stability while they seek employment and establish lives in their communities. Conversely, denying them benefits makes it that much harder to reintegrate into society. Moreover, as CLASP has previously explained, policies that restrict access exacerbate the consequences of racially biased enforcement of drug laws.

Eliminating SNAP and TANF penalties is a common-sense way to help people succeed when they exit the criminal justice system. Right now, we have an opportunity to advance this bi-partisan issue. Federal and state lawmakers should follow the leads of Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, and North Dakota by eliminating drug felony bans for SNAP and TANF.