By Saffeya Ahmed
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — A legislative subcommittee voted 6-4 Tuesday in favor of a bill that would make food stamps available to people convicted of drug-related felonies.
The panel recommended that the full House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee approve House Bill 1891, which would expand eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, to any drug offender.
“We are a nation of second chances,” said Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth, who sponsored the bill. “This is an issue we need to think about … repealing the lifetime ban on food stamps.”
Under current law, only people who are convicted of drug possession felonies can be eligible for food stamps and temporary assistance, if they comply with the court and complete a substance abuse treatment program.
James said the legislation serves as a “safety net for felons who have done their time, paid their prices.”
In 2018, more than 4,000 SNAP applicants were denied food stamps because of drug-related charges, according to the bill’s impact statement. If passed, HB 1891 would provide SNAP to more than 600 new Virginians who do not reside in SNAP homes and are not currently eligible for SNAP because of drug-related crimes.
Eighteen states have dropped the restrictions prohibiting drug offenders from receiving SNAP, and 26 states — including Virginia — have reduced prohibitions by offering benefits if specific requirements are met. Virginia requires compliance with criminal court and Department of Social Services obligations, and the completion or active engagement in a substance abuse treatment program. Only three states implement a full lifetime ban on SNAP for drug offenders, James said.
“I could have a felony as serious as homicide and be eligible for SNAP benefits,” said Pamela Little-Hill, director of social services for the city of Portsmouth. “There is something incredibly wrong with that.”
James’ proposal would modify Virginia law to include any drug-related felonies, not just those related to possession. It also sought to remove the additional requirements for drug offenders to meet — court compliance and drug rehabilitation — in order to be eligible. But the subcommittee amended the bill to keep the requirements.
Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, sponsored legislation similar to James’ food stamp bill. HB 2397 would prohibit denying Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, to individuals who have been convicted for drug-related felonies as well. The subcommittee voted 4-5 to reject Lopez’s legislation.
“Parents re-entering their communities after incarceration routinely require public benefits to reunite their families, pay rents and buy food, clothing and other necessities,” Lopez said. “Denying access to such families as they attempt to rebuild their lives is counterproductive. Family members who are innocent of any wrongdoing are being punished for the crime of a parent.”
TANF is a federal welfare program that provides monthly cash assistance to families to help meet basic needs. Lopez’s TANF bill would assist more than 100 families across the commonwealth, he said, and provide approximately $79 a month to each household.
“Through this process, we’re going to be helping families, helping stabilize communities,” Lopez said.
Both HB 1891 and 2397 focus on re-incorporating drug offenders into society and reducing recidivism, or offenders relapsing into a continuous cycle of crime.
“These bills seek successful re-entry,” said Salaam Bhatti, attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “Studies show that 91 percent of people who are leaving prison don’t have access to food. This will help. Eligibility for these programs significantly decreases recidivism.”
The House Health, Welfare and Institutions committee might consider HB 1891 when it meets Thursday.