Nearly a half million Americans are serving time for drug offenses. For many, leaving prison with a felony conviction on their record adds to the hurdles they face re-entering society. A 1996 federal law blocks felons with drug convictions from receiving welfare or food stamps unless states choose to waive the restrictions, Stateline reports. The bans, which don't apply to convictions for any other crimes, were put in place as part of a sweeping reform of the nation's welfare system, and at the height of the war on drugs. Now many states are rethinking how to help felons become productive citizens and reduce the likelihood they will return to prison.
Since 1996, 18 states have lifted restrictions on food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and 26 allow people with certain types of drug felonies to get those benefits—leaving six states where a felony drug record disqualifies a person from receiving them. States have been more restrictive when it comes to extending welfare benefits through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families: 14 have lifted the restriction, 24 have some restrictions and 12 have full restrictions barring felons with a drug conviction from receiving cash assistance. Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, which advocates reforming the laws, said banning people from getting food stamps runs contrary to policies designed to ease inmates' re-entry to society and to curb recidivism. “This increases the odds they will commit new crimes by virtue of the fact that you're creating a significant financial obstacle,” Mauer said. This year, Texas and Alabama became the latest states to lift blanket bans on receiving food stamps.