This year, Mississippi lawmakers could finally make federal food assistance accessible to people who have been convicted of drug crimes.

Since reforming its welfare laws in 1996, the U.S. government has banned people with drug-related felonies from participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), forms of cash assistance that re-entry advocates say can help people get back on their feet and feed their families after getting out of prison.

Still, states can opt out of the ban. Mississippi is only one of three remaining states that continues to opt in – a point made by Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, last week as she amended a criminal justice reform bill to include a provision to lift the ban on SNAP.

“If somebody who has a violent crime conviction can collect food stamps, I don’t see why someone with a drug felony should be treated any differently,” said Doty last week at a Senate Judiciary A committee meeting.

The state Department of Human Services, which administers both the SNAP and TANF programs, must currently screen applicants for a prior drug felony conviction.

An estimated 67,376 people – as of 2017 – could be affected by the ban, according to data compiled by Second Chance Mississippi.

Doty praised the program, citing its income and work requirements, as well as education programs people on SNAP participate in.

“I mean, it’s really the type of program that we need folks who are trying to get their life back together to be in,” she added.

Some research shows that lifting the SNAP ban reduces the likelihood that people with drug convictions who are released from prison will return within a year.

Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Raymond, said he believes the state Department of Human Services is not against providing such assistance to people with drug convictions though it cannot do so legally right now.

A DHS spokesman said the agency has no comment on the legislation.

A separate bill sponsored by Dortch this session to remove the ban on people with felonies died last week.

Critics point out that a ban affects not only individuals, but also their families, as the ban applies to any household the person with the drug felony resides in.

“These children in this house shouldn’t go without food because their father or their mother made a bad decision with drugs or had a drug addiction,” Dortch said in an interview. “It shouldn’t be something we punish an entire family about.”

Such a ban could also have a disproportionate effect on women in the state, per information presented by the Center for Justice to the state’s Re-Entry Council in January, which noted that women are both more likely than men to participate in SNAP or TANF and to be convicted of a drug felony.

SNAP is completely federally funded, so changing the provision would not cost the state any money.

The bill, S.B. 2791, has been touted alongside a House bill with similar measures as beneficial to people who are re-entering society after prison and looking to find jobs. Both bills include reforms on drug courts, expungements and driver’s license suspensions, but only the Senate bill currently has any language on the SNAP ban.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s office supports the Senate bill, said Sen. Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, who is sponsoring the bill in committee.

While the House legislation passed last week, the Senate bill has not been debated.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.