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Relaxed Food Stamp Rules to Help Felons

Starting Sept. 1, a new Texas law will allow people with felony drug convictions to qualify for food assistance, ending the lifetime ban they currently face. Supporters hope the change will reduce recidivism as it helps felons get back on their feet.

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One way to help keep thousands of freed drug felons from returning to Texas prisons is letting them collect food stamps while getting back on their feet, advocates say. And starting Sept. 1, many will be able to do just that.

A Texas law will go into effect allowing people with felony drug convictions to qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Previously, a drug conviction meant a lifetime ban from food stamps. Supporters hope the change will reduce recidivism and enable felons to better integrate into society.

"People struggle finding work after getting felony convictions," said Celia Cole, chief executive director for Feeding Texas. "Food assistance is really critical for that."

It's hard to determine exactly how many additional people will now qualify for food stamps. In 2014, more than 56,000 Texans were on community supervision for felony drug offenses. Of the 75,000 inmates released from Texas prisons and jails last year, roughly 30 percent were convicted on drug charges, according to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. A significant number of them will qualify for SNAP, said Betsy Edwards, communications manager for Feeding Texas.

But if they don't stick to the rules, recipients risk losing benefits. Violating terms of their paroles would lead to a two-year disqualification. If they re-offend on drug charges, they face a lifetime ban.

Until the law was passed, Texas was one of 13 states that had not adopted the federal statutory option to lift or modify the lifetime ban as part of SNAP.

Today, about 3.6 million Texans receive food stamps through SNAP, according to the state Health and Human Services Commission.

The commission, which administers the federal food stamp program, is figuring out how to implement the legislation, said spokesman Bryan Black. He estimates it will take about a year before the rules are finalized.

The commission doesn't expect its workload to be greatly affected, Black said, because most of the new recipients who qualify are already part of homes receiving benefits.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, authored the House version of the bill. At a hearing in April, Thompson pointed to the requirement that SNAP recipients receive job training and other resources as a critical tool for re-integration.

"It seems disproportional to punish persons for life for a mistake that might not even get them jail time," Thompson said at the hearing.

Those released from prison are often only given a $100 check, a week's supply of medicine, a bus pass and a change of clothes, said Doug Smith, a policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who testified in favor of the bill at the April hearing. And that's not enough resources to help someone leaving prison get back on their feet, he said.

"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."

Disclosure: Feeding Texas is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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