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Jan. 4, 2024 |  By: Clara Bates - Missouri Independent

Missouri legislators hope to fully lift felony drug ban from food assistance program


By Clara Bates - Missouri Independent

A decade ago, Missouri lawmakers passed legislation that was celebrated as lifting the lifetime ban from food stamp benefits for people with a drug felony on their record.

But that legislation created a host of restrictions and requirements to be eligible for and access benefits, modifying the ban rather than eliminating it outright.

Now, two Missouri senators have filed legislation that would remove Missouri’s remaining restrictions on providing food benefits to those convicted of felony drug offenses. They argue the current system has severely hindered access to benefits for a population particularly in need of food aid as they reintegrate after incarceration.

“Successful reentry into society from the criminal justice system requires being able to meet basic needs such as food,” said state Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat. “Denying access to basic needs programs makes it harder for people with convictions to get back on their feet.”

Under current law, those who’ve been incarcerated can only have a single felony for drug possession or use to be eligible — and they then must participate in a treatment program and drug testing.

“I have not seen anyone who has been able to get it,” said state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, an Arnold Republican. 

Coleman, along with Arthur, is sponsoring legislation that would lift the ban completely, arguing that denying access to basic needs like food increases the risk of recidivism.

Missouri would join 29 other states in entirely opting out of the ban under the legislation.

Federal law since the mid-nineties has prevented those convicted of felony drug offenses from accessing food benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Food Assistance Program, also referred to as food stamps. But states can modify the ban or opt out of it entirely.

Missouri has had a modified ban in place since 2014 allowing an individual convicted of a felony drug offense to apply for an exception allowing access to SNAP benefits. But a host of requirements must be met to qualify, including drug testing and treatment. 

Missouri’s requirements comprise “one of the nation’s most stringent bans for receiving SNAP benefits,” according to a report released in December by the nonprofit Collateral Consequences Resource Center.

Disqualifications include having been convicted of multiple felonies for possession or use, or any felony for drug manufacturing and distribution. 

Individuals also must also pass a drug test that they pay for, comply with their probation or parole conditions and be in or completed drug treatment.

Coleman said that in practice, Missouri lacks a system to grant the exceptions. 

“You have to get a system in place to allow that drug testing to happen to be able to apply,” she said, “and right now there is no system in place to allow it, so it is effectively a full ban.”

The Department of Social Services, which administers SNAP, did not respond to questions about how many people have been granted the exception or are turned away from SNAP due to drug felony convictions.  

But in other states with partial bans, thousands are disqualified each year — including because they may have trouble surmounting the various bureaucratic hurdles, such as getting proof that they completed rehabilitation treatment years earlier. States have also reported the additional work to process these cases can burden agencies’ capacity and limiting staff.

“I feel very, very strongly,” Coleman said, “that access to food and access to nutrition is not something that should be punitive.”