Alabama is one of only eight states that ban federal benefits of both cash assistance and food stamps to people convicted of felony drug offenses, making successful reentry more difficult for thousands of people.
In 1996, Congress passed a law that allows states to subject people convicted of drug-related felonies to a lifetime ban on federal cash assistance (TANF) and food stamps (SNAP). A new Sentencing Project report shows that 42 states and the District of Columbia have modified or eliminated the ban, reflecting a recognition among state officials that permanently depriving an individual of assistance because of a drug conviction – no matter what the circumstances of the offense or the individual’s life – is not good public policy.
Nearly 700,000 people are released from state and federal prison each year. For formerly incarcerated individuals transitioning back to their home communities, SNAP and TANF benefits help meet basic survival needs while they are searching for jobs and housing. These programs reduce the chance that formerly incarcerated individuals will return to criminal activity to secure food or other essentials for themselves or their families. They also fund drug treatment services. If individuals who are recovering from drug addiction are denied access to these “subsistence benefits, treatment, and safe and sober housing, it is much less likely that these [people] will be able to live drug-free in the community and avoid recidivism.”
The ban on benefits disproportionately impacts mothers, many of whom are the primary caregivers in their households. A 2002 study estimated that between 1996 and 1999 alone, more than 92,000 women nationwide were permanently denied food stamps, and the latest report shows that an estimated 180,100 women are affected by the TANF ban.
When women are barred from receiving benefits, their children suffer. The 2002 study estimated that the permanent welfare ban placed more than 135,000 children at increased risk of contact with welfare services and the criminal justice system.
The ban also disproportionately impacts people of color. Data on illicit drug use has consistently shown over time that whites, African Americans, and Latinos use drugs at roughly comparable rates. But as of 2011, African Americans comprised 40.7% of prisoners in state prisons for drug crimes, while individuals of Hispanic origin made
up another 21.1% of this population.