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Bracy Davis bill would allow people with felony drug convictions to receive SNAP benefits

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Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Saturday, December 2, 2023


Research shows that being able to access basic needs benefits like food assistance reduces one's risk of returning to jail by 10 percent.

“I have a heart for the returning citizens community,” said Democratic state Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis.

The Ocoee lawmaker was talking about her House Bill 409, filed last week, during VoxPopuli’s virtual roundtable with West Orange County members of the Legislative Black Caucus.

“That community really needs a voice and a champion and to be reminded that they are not forgotten,” she said. 

House Bill 409 would stop the ban on public assistance benefits for those convicted of drug trafficking and would remove the requirements — such as participating in substance abuse programs — that those with felony drug convictions need to fulfill in order to receive benefits like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP for groceries or financial assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

“How Florida interprets the dissemination of those resources is that anyone is eligible for SNAP benefits if they meet the right criteria in terms of how much money they make,” Bracy Davis said. “But those that have been charged with a drug trafficking offense ... they're not able to apply for SNAP benefits.”

That ban was part of the Clinton Administration’s 1996 landmark federal welfare reform, which imposed a lifetime ban on public assistance for anyone convicted of a felony involving the possession, use or distribution of a controlled substance. Florida modified the ban to apply only to crimes committed after Aug. 23, 1996.

Twenty-seven states no longer deny SNAP and TANF benefits to drug traffickers, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C.

“Denying access to basic needs programs makes it harder for people with convictions to get back on their feet,” according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. “Such exclusions are racist: they are grounded in stereotypes about who receives public assistance, and they are especially punitive for Black and Latinx communities due to the War on Drugs’ uneven enforcement of drug laws and targeting of communities of color with low incomes.”

Started in 1933 as a federal program to support American farmers while feeding the nation’s hungry, SNAP now provides up to $291 a month for one person while a family of four can receive $973 each month for food. Benefit amounts increased 3.5 to 3.7 percent in October. Currently, 251,089 Orange County residents receive SNAP benefits. In 2022, 1,643 Orange County families received TANF.

The USDA which administers SNAP, reports that 92 percent of SNAP benefits are used by families at or below the poverty level, and 86 percent of these families include a child, someone with a disability or an elder. Most SNAP recipients are white (37 percent). Twenty-six percent of recipients are Black; 16 percent are Hispanic; 3 percent are Asian; 2 percent are Native American.

Returning citizens, who are disproportionately people of color, struggle with hunger, according to a study done by Yale University School of Medicine. In the study of 110 people recently released from prison, 91 percent reported food insecurity, and 37 percent had not eaten on at least one day in the previous month. Those who had not eaten were more likely to trade sex for food and use drugs or alcohol before sex, putting them at risk for HIV.

Bracy Davis said during the roundtable that drug trafficking is the only crime that renders someone ineligible for SNAP.

“Think of all of the crimes that are on the books and committing that crime and serving your time does not keep you from applying for SNAP benefits,” she said. “I thought that was a concern, especially when we're talking about recidivism, and we're talking about trying to keep people out of jail, especially after they've done their time and trying to equip people and give them the best resources to be productive citizens. I thought that we need to change this in terms of SNAP benefits.”

It turns out that being able to access to benefits does keep people out of jail.  When a University of Maryland researcher looked at Florida’s recidivism rates, he found that drug traffickers were 9.5 percent more likely to be reincarcerated after the 1996 ban on benefits compared with those who could access benefits before the ban went into effect. 

In another study, this one done by Harvard Law School, when returning citizens were eligible for benefits after being released from prison, their risk for going back to prison within the year dropped 10 percent.

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