A Senate committee on Monday approved a bill that would extend Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — also known as SNAP or food stamps — to former offenders convicted of certain drug-related offenses.
A federal law prohibits former criminals convicted of, for example, trafficking controlled substances, from receiving food stamp benefits. States can choose to do away with the federal ban with a positive legislative vote.
According to a 2016 report from the Marshall Project, Indiana is one of 26 states that still impose a partial prohibition on certain drug offenders receiving food stamp benefits. If the bill is successful, Indiana would join 18 states that have completely opted out of the federal ban.
Bill author Sen. Jim Merritt says the ban keeps certain offenders from rehabilitating themselves.
“You can commit murder in the state of Indiana, go away in the Department of Correction, do your time, be released from the Department of Correction, and receive SNAP,” he says.
Several agencies spoke in support of the bill during a hearing before the Committee on Family and Children Services, saying keeping former criminals healthy and food-secure ultimately helps them find jobs and become self-sufficient.
Without SNAP benefits, people are forced to turn to other outlets, such as townships and food pantries, in order to find food. But there are limits to how much food can be taken from pantries, and in rural areas, lack of transportation to and from places where food assistance is available can mean people go hungry.
Kathy Hahn Keiner of Gleaner’s Food Bank testified in support of the bill. She says, without SNAP, offenders continue to be punished after they’ve served time. She says there just aren’t enough safety nets to feed former offenders, who often have a hard time getting a job after they’re incarcerated.
“Any reduction in benefit levels and eligibility simply sends more people to longer lines at the food pantries,” she says. “And we don’t have all the extra resources to buy more food.”
Amanda Nickey, CEO of Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, a Bloomington food pantry, says the ban doesn’t only punish former offenders, but their families, too.
She described in her testimony discovering a woman crying while picking strawberries in the organization’s on-site garden.
“She just needed the extra food for her kids. They were out of school and they didn’t have enough food to get through the summer,” says Nickey. “She confessed that she’d made some bad choices in the past, and had a felony record that prevented her from getting SNAP for herself…she said she often skipped meals so her kids didn’t have to go without.”
The bill passed eight-to-one, with Sen. Erin Houchin (R-Salem) saying she would rather support amending Indiana’s partial ban.
“If we completely eliminate the ban instead of modifying the partial ban to something more amenable,” says Houchin. “Then at some point we might be subsidizing a drug problem.”
Houchin floated the idea of taking into account the number of drug crimes committed by a person before deciding if he or she was food stamp-eligible.
While SNAP benefits are paid for by the federal government, the state shares about 50 percent of the program’s administrative costs. Supporters of the bill say more SNAP money flowing into the state could potentially ease financial burdens on townships, often forced to take up the cases of non-SNAP-eligible people.
Another bill that would ease asset limits for SNAP eligibility was considered by the committee, but a vote is scheduled for a later date.