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Criminal Justice Reform Paves the Way for Welfare Reform

Bipartisan support for reducing recidivism is driving most states to relax or lift the federal ban on drug felons receiving food stamps or cash assistance. Pennsylvania went the other way.

Prisoners escorted into prison by guard.
(TNS/Gary Coronado)


  • Most states have recently relaxed or lifted the federal ban on drug felons enrolling in food stamp or cash assistance programs. 
  • The trend is driven by the bipartisan support for reducing recidivism; research shows that felons with full access to public benefits are less likely to return to prison.
  • Pennsylvania recently reversed course and reinstated a ban.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, raised eyebrows in the fall by signing S.B. 6, a bill that bans felons with drug offenses and some sex offenders from receiving public benefits for 10 years. His decision contradicted the trend of states easing access to public benefits for people with criminal records.

There’s a federal ban on people with felony drug convictions enrolling in food stamp and cash assistance programs. But most states have either removed or modified the ban.

Only three states -- Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia -- have kept the full ban on food stamps, and 10 states have kept the full ban on cash assistance, according to Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports for the Center on Law and Social Policy. Prior to Wolf’s signature, Pennsylvania had lifted the ban on both benefits in 2003.

Most of the movement to relax or roll back the federal ban has taken place in the past couple of years -- even in conservative states that historically don’t support policies to make the safety net bigger. Indiana, for instance, fully overturned its ban on SNAP last year, a change that will take effect in 2020. Several states passed reform laws in 2016, including Georgia, which has the highest share of people on parole or incarcerated. 

Advocates frame these reforms as a way to reduce recidivism. According to one study, 91 percent of felons coming out of prison are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to food. And a 2017 paper from Havard University's Olin Center for Law, Economics and Business found that recently released felons with full access to public benefits are 10 percent less likely to return to prison within a year.

“If your goal is for people to be reintegrating back into society, then access to food stamps and cash assistance is one way to do that,” says Lower-Basch.

This trend reflects the bipartisan nature of criminal justice reform. President Donald Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill just last month that had support from both parties.

“When the conversations were anchored around widening the public safety net, those conversations weren’t as successful. But when it shifted to public safety, there’s been success in organizing around that,” says Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, which focuses on criminal justice reform.

Still, some conservatives want to limit who gets these benefits. A House version of last year's farm bill would have added to the list of felony crimes that disqualify a person from accessing public benefits after leaving prison or jail. It was removed. 

In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Mike Regan, who introduced the bill that Wolf signed, had more success.

“This legislation is the product of years of work by many of my esteemed colleagues who, like myself, recognize the need to protect against abuse of our public welfare system and to ensure assistance dollars are going to those who need it the most,” said Regan in a statement at the time of the bill’s passage. (The bill also fines food stamp beneficiaries $100 if they lose their EBT card for a second time.)

But critics of the bill -- including Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a Pennsylvania-based anti-poverty group -- say “it’s a solution in search of a problem.”

He points out, for instance, that the law only applies to sex offenders if they violate their reporting requirements. Violating those requirements typically sends people back to jail, where they are no longer eligible for public benefits, making S.B. 6 irrelevant.

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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