Louisiana is charting a new course for its criminal justice system, and one of the major goals of the reform effort is to clear away barriers to successful re-entry. One easy, and free, way for the state to give a hand up to former offenders is to ensure they have access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) upon release. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is currently unavailable to an offender with a felony drug convictions for the first year after they complete their sentence. House Bill 177 by Rep. Helena Moreno would eliminate this arbitrary barrier to food assistance, and in doing so, would put the formerly incarcerated on a more stable path to successful reentry.  

Louisiana sends more individuals to prison for drug offenses than for any other type of crime, and more than half of prison admissions for drug offenses are for drug possession. The average length of time served for a drug offense in the state is 1.7 years. This relatively short prison terms means that thousands of Louisianans with a felony drug conviction are released from behind bars each every year. In 2015, 6,135 individuals were released from a Louisiana correctional facility after serving time for a drug conviction. Under current state law, none of them are eligible to receive food assistance until one year from their release date.

Research – as well as common sense – tell us that when prisoners complete their sentences and are released, they are in great need of social services and supports. Many formerly incarcerated persons struggle to meet their most basic needs – stable housing, adequate food, and health care. Difficulty finding work due to stigma and discrimination only adds to the challenges of reentry for the formerly incarcerated. The social safety net, therefore, plays a huge role in helping those released from with getting back on their feet, especially in the first days and weeks post-release. Federal nutrition assistance could be a useful tool in the toolbox to helping former offenders get on their feet after release.

Withholding food assistance from a person who has paid his or her debt to society does not help anyone. Former offenders are far more likely to report food insecurity than the general population, and food insecurity, in turn, is tied to higher levels of illegal activity. Therefore, allowing all former offenders to access SNAP is one easy way to reduce recidivism.

House Bill 177 is part of a larger set of recommendations put forth by the state’s Justice Reinvestment Taskforce aimed at easing re-entry and reducing recidivism. In total, the state plans to reinvest $154 million of the funds saved through criminal justice reform on decreasing barriers to reentry over the next 10 years. The change proposed in HB 177, however, is virtually without cost to the state, as SNAP benefits are 100 percent federally funded. In fact, allowing income-eligible former drug offenders to receive SNAP benefits could bring as much as $9 million in federal funding into the state each year, all of which would be spent in local grocery stores. In sum, passing HB 177 would be a small but important step to ensuring the state is using all available resources to set former offenders up for success.

  • by Jeanie Donovan