Economy

Georgia May Soon Repeal Its Lifetime Food Stamps Ban For Former Drug Offenders

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

Prisoners stare at a motivational poster on a wall at the correctional facility in Jackson, Georgia.

Georgia is poised to stop encouraging drug criminals to resort to crime to feed themselves after they are released from jail. After maintaining a lifetime food stamps ban for such ex-cons for two decades, lawmakers in Georgia are close to final passage of a bill to reverse course.

The measure would restore eligibility for food stamps to drug offenders who complete their sentences and comply with parole rules. It is attached to a much broader slate of reforms to the state’s policies toward ex-offenders of all kinds.

The bans were initially triggered by federal law in the mid-1990s, but states are allowed to opt out of them at any time. With ample evidence that making life harder for people attempting to re-integrate from prison to society is counterproductive, many states have abandoned the policy as a drug war relic in the past decade.

The Georgia bill stops short of fully repealing the ban, as 20 states have done. But it would leave just five stubborn holdouts that maintain the full, unconditional lifetime food stamps ban for drug crimes. Georgia leaving that group would be particularly noteworthy because it has the largest Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) population of any of the full-ban states.

The broader criminal justice reform package that includes the repeal is likely to pass after Monday’s vote. It’s already garnered unanimous report on the Senate floor, and the House judiciary committee’s sign-off means the lower chamber’s most informed members on criminal justice issues want their colleagues to say yes to the bill. The Atlanta Journal Constitution puts the bill’s odds of final passage at 67 percent.

Former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) came up with the idea to bar destitute people from safety net programs for the rest of their lives if they are busted for a drug offense. The policy was tucked into the disastrous welfare reform bill of the mid-1990s at Gramm’s behest, with almost no discussion.

Several states defected from the bans almost immediately, though the exact shape of state-level policies varied widely. Gramm had designed the bans to kick in automatically unless states opted out of them. But bans were in effect for over a decade in more than half of all U.S. states, dooming untold millions of people to make their way back into the world after prison without basic food and welfare assistance.

The tables have flipped since, but only partway. Just six states maintain full bans for food stamps, but bans from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program those same ex-convicts often rely upon remain intact in 12 states. Georgia is one of those 12, and the measure moving this spring would leave the TANF ban in place there.

There’s a similar push underway in Nebraska, where state Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) introduced legislation in January to repeal that state’s hybrid approach to the drug convictions ban. The bill would repeal Nebraska’s three-strikes SNAP ban and erase the requirement for drug convicts to attend addiction treatment courses to remain eligible for food stamps.

The legislative strategy in Nebraska also mirrors what’s happening in Georgia. Last week, lawmakers attached Morfeld’s measure to a broader package of reforms to the state’s parole system, increasing the odds that it will pass into law.

If it does, Nebraska will become the 21st state to abandon Gramm’s idea entirely for food stamps. But the drug convictions ban for TANF would remain in place — a dichotomy between rejecting a drug crime connection for food assistance but embracing it for the more flexible of the two main anti-poverty programs.

Nebraska is one of the dozen states that has never modified or waived the lifetime ban for welfare benefits, but would be just the third to take opposite stances on Gramm’s policy in TANF and SNAP.