In a shockingly uncharacteristic display of bipartisan prudence, the great state of Texas has just passed a new law allowing freed drug offenders to receive food stamps.
A federal law enacted in 1996—at the height of the so-called War on Drugs—prohibited felons with prior drug convictions from receiving food stamps, unless state law specifically waived the restriction.
And, in what might seem to be the ultimate form of irony, felons convicted of violent crimes were eligible to receive food stamps—officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—until two years ago, while drug offenders were not.
Since the 1996 federal law was passed, 18 states have lifted the restrictions on food stamps for drug-related felons, and 25 other states allow people with certain types of drug felonies to get those benefits. This left just seven states where a felony drug conviction meant no food assistance. And until now, Texas was one of these seven states.
As Celia Cole, chief executive director for Feeding Texas, pointed out to the Texas Tribune via Kera News, "People struggle finding work after getting felony convictions. Food assistance is really critical for that."
Estimates say that approximately 30 percent of Texas's prison population of 75,000 inmates is incarcerated on drug charges. Another 56,000 Texans are on community supervision for prior felony drug offenses. That means a whole lot of Texans will newly be qualified for food stamps.
Before the change in law, about 3.6 million Texans received food stamps, according to the state Health and Human Services Commission.
Upon release, prisoners are typically only given a $100 check, a week's supply of medicine, a bus pass, and a change of clothes, according to Doug Smith, who works for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. He testified in April at a hearing for the new bill.
"Individuals who cannot speed their way to housing and job stability are at an extraordinarily high risk of recidivism," Smith said. "We want to use these programs to promote re-entry."
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, authored a version of the Texas bill. "It seems disproportional to punish persons for life for a mistake that might not even get them jail time," Thompson said at a recent hearing.
Only two Texas House members voted against change in law.
Thompson said she is "grateful for the bipartisan support that made it possible to give this community a second chance."
Tracy Turnery, the local SNAP outreach coordinator, told local news KTXS that she understands both sides—those who are hesitant to give assistance to former drug felons and those who sympathize with their post-conviction plight.
One the one hand, she says, "If I didn't work here, I'd think, Gosh, that's just going to start a lot of trouble for people that are on drugs. They're just going to get on food stamps and start selling them, that has been a problem before."
On the other hand, though, she sees the wisdom of offering help to feed those who are trying to right their lives anew: "There are so many people out there that can't get a job and they can't get food stamps, either, so it's hard for them to get on their feet. I run across a lot of people that are clean and they just don't know what to do, and they have nowhere to turn for help."
Now, thanks to Texas's new law, they won't have to worry about food.