Ex-inmates would face less food insecurity under Az GOP proposal to ease SNAP restrictions
For Kara Janssen, walking out the front doors of Perryville Prison in 2016 was stressful enough without having to worry about food security, especially with three children to think about.
“You get $200 when you’re leaving prison,” Janssen said. “They kick you out and say, ‘Good luck,’ and expect you to go and rejoin society.”
But one Republican lawmaker wants to eliminate that worry and is backing legislation that would expand access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for recently released felons.
SNAP is a federally funded program that provides income eligible households monthly benefits to support their food budgets. Generally, these households lie at or below 130% of the poverty line. For a family of three that means an annual income of $28,550 or less. In Arizona, the average monthly SNAP payment is $257.
Existing state law requires that applicants with felony offenses agree to random drug testing and participate in a substance abuse treatment program or have a doctor’s sign-off that treatment isn’t needed. This is on top of drug testing already required by probationary conditions.
Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, hopes to remove those extra burdens. His legislation, House Bill 2060, would require only that the formerly incarcerated person follow their terms of probation to qualify for SNAP. Probationary requirements may include drug testing, counseling, community service, home visits, drug tests, and regular check-ins with probation officers, among others.
A self proclaimed “big criminal justice reformer,” Blackman said that removing barriers to access for the program would both support people trying to restart their lives and protect communities from reoffenders.
“We don’t want to put them in a situation where they’ll reoffend. And if a person is hungry, they get desperate,” he said.
As much as 68% of drug offenders are arrested within three years of their initial release. That invariably costs taxpayers money, said Janssen. The likelihood of recidivism is increased by poverty.
A 2018 Brookings study found that, in the first year after incarceration, only 55% of ex-prisoners are employed, and their average reported income is $13,890. This is significantly less than individuals without a high school degree, who report an average of $19,492.
Janssen said most employers are unwilling to hire felons and many fire them after the background check is completed. The Prison Policy Initiative reported that unemployment among the formerly incarcerated in 2018 was as high as 27%, nearly seven times greater than when overall unemployment in 2018 peaked at 4.1% in February.
This isn’t for lack of effort, either. Ex prisoners are more likely than their counterparts to be active in the labor market. Among 25-44 year olds who were previously incarcerated, 93.3% are employed or looking for work, compared to only 83.3% of those who haven’t been incarcerated.
The picture is even bleaker for Black drug offenders. They represent only 5% of all illicit drug users, but make up 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Recidivism for Black drug offenders is higher than most other racial groups, according to a Department of Justice analysis of prisoner recidivism from 2009 through 2014. And their employment outcomes are similarly disparate, with both Black women and men facing nearly double the rate of unemployment as their white counterparts after being released from prison.
Janssen, who is the Smart Justice Organizer for ACLU Arizona and has also experienced the hurdles of navigating the world after prison, said that programs like SNAP ease some of the stress felons deal with.
“It’s really important to have that extra support (from) the food stamps – the SNAP benefits – as well as insurance, because that would take away two things that you don’t have to worry about,” she said.
Making it easier to access federal food aid is a step towards helping nonviolent drug offenders, Blackman said. And although the bill doesn’t actually say so, he said that the measure is intended to apply only to those suffering from addiction, and not to people convicted of selling drugs.
“We have a lot of people in prison that are addicted to substances, and we want to be able to help those people,” he said.
In fact, 21% of those incarcerated in Arizona are drug offenders, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice advocacy organization.
Cutting down on demands made of recently released people would go a long way toward lifting a weight off of their shoulders, Janssen said, and would free up time to look for housing and gainful employment – both aims which present significant challenges for ex-prisoners.
“Adding additional requirements and barriers makes it so much harder on us than it already is,” she said. “This bill is going to be great if it does away with (drug testing), because if we’re already complying with probation and going to do those drug tests, that should be sufficient.”
For Blackman, who has spent his legislative career unsuccessfully pushing sweeping sentencing reform measures, Arizona is behind the curve on reforming its criminal justice system. But he said he remains hopeful that this measure will succeed where others did not, and make a difference in the lives of Arizonans with felony convictions.
“When these folks get out of prison, they already have enough challenges that face them. And being hungry is a basic need that we can fix,” Blackman said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.
Gloria Gomez is a senior at the University of Arizona and the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow. The university started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.