Senate panel votes to drop ban on drug felons receiving food stamps

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Indiana lawmakers on Monday took a preliminary step that could pave the way for people with felony drug convictions to receive food and nutrition assistance—part of one lawmaker's plan to curb the state’s opioid problem.

A Senate committee voted 8-1 in favor of State Sen. Jim Merritt’s bill, which would opt the state out of a federal law prohibiting people convicted of certain drug offenses from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP benefits are commonly referred to as “food stamps.”

“If we’re going to kill heroin in five years, we need a comprehensive approach,” said Merritt, a Republican who represents the district encompassing Marion and Hamilton counties. “My point in writing this piece of legislation is for those leaving the Department of Corrections to encourage them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but to give them a start to be on the right track in life.”

Merritt's bill, which will still need to be considered by the full Senate and House, comes as states rethink their approaches to dealing with drug abuse and the criminal justice system. Indiana Republican leaders, including new Gov. Eric Holcomb, have pledged a comprehensive approach to making a dent in the state’s opioid problem.

A federal ban to block drug felons from receiving food assistance came about in 1996, but it left some rules up to the states. As of 2015, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, about 20 states had no ban, 24 states had a partial ban, and six, including Indiana, had a full ban.

But conservative-leaning states—including Georgia and Alaska—have opted out of the law recently.

Since the federal government pays for SNAP benefits and 50 percent of the administrative costs associated with distributing them, the bill, if enacted, would have “indeterminate but potentially minimal additional administrative cost” for the state, Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency found

State Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, said the bill was a “win-win."

“We can feed more Hoosiers in the state and have help from the federal government in terms of paying for it,” Breaux said.

Amanda Nickey, president and CEO of Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard of Bloomington, testified in support of the bill, saying that her food pantry has clients with felony drug convictions who could use extra help.

She shared the story of a woman named Rachel she met at her food pantry who “confessed she had made some bad choices and has a felony record.”

“The kids have some SNAP benefits but it’s not enough for the whole family. This is one of the stories of folks [who] continue to be punished for trying to get back on their feed.”

She said the change would “enable families like hers to work toward self-sufficiency and be healthy members of our community."

But state Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, was the only committee member to vote against the bill. Houchin said she would prefer changes to Indiana’s ban, instead of a wholesale removal.

Houchin said "we might be subsidizing a drug problem with tax dollars” if drug felons were eligible for SNAP benefits.

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