By ERIC GALATAS
Nebraska News Connection
LINCOLN, Neb.-Nebraska lawmakers are considering a bill to end a lifetime ban on federal food assistance for people convicted of federal drug felonies.
Proponents say Legislative Bill 121 would help Nebraska move past 1990s-era laws passed during the so-called war on drugs, which led to mass incarceration across the U.S.
Jasmine Harris, director of public policy and advocacy for the group RISE, said the ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the program formerly known as food stamps, benefits no one.
"It does nothing but put another barrier up, invisible handcuffs if you will, for individuals who have already completed their sentence," Harris asserted. "So why are we now putting another sanction on them, when they did what the court told them to do?"
Federal law imposes a lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for people convicted of drug felonies, but states can opt out. Nebraska allows some exemptions, depending on criminal history and the completion of substance-abuse programs. A full ban remains for anyone who served time for felony drug distribution.
Sen. Megan Hunt, D-Omaha, who has made the measure a priority, said Nebraskans leaving prison need to be able to meet their basic needs to successfully reintegrate into their communities. She pointed out food assistance is not only important for the individual who qualifies.
"We're also talking about, typically, children in the household. This is another safeguard that we can have to prevent many children who live in deep poverty from losing access to SNAP benefits. And poverty and food insecurity comes at a considerable cost to the state, as well."
When people cannot access food, Harris explained they are more likely to revert to criminal activities to support themselves. It costs $46,000 per year to keep someone behind bars. Harris contended the bill would save taxpayers money by reducing the number of people reentering prison, and provide relief for facilities currently operating at 146% of capacity.
"Which helps alleviate that overcrowding situation," Harris stressed. "If we can get people out, help them with their basic necessities, get them on the right path, they are less likely to go back into our correctional system."