State lawmakers considering removing SNAP ban for drug felons

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - More Hoosiers could soon receive federal food assistance through the SNAP program.

Indiana currently puts a lifetime ban on Hoosiers with a drug-related felony, but that ban may get lifted during this year's General Assembly.

Senate Bill 11 passed through the Senate Families and Children Services Committee without opposition Thursday afternoon. The move means the bill could be discussed by the entire Senate as early as next week.

“If someone has a felony and served their time, when they leave prison, they should be a SNAP recipient," said State Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis).

Merritt co-authored S.B. 11, and wrote similar legislation that passed through the Senate in 2017. The bill never made it through the House.

The bill's main author is State Sen. Mike Bohacek (R-Michiana Shores), who has two state prisons in his district.

“The average income for a convicted felon is about $11,000 to $12,000 a year," said Bohacek. "Without some other support, food support being one of them, it is certainly a hopeless situation."

A total of 15 people spoke in front of the committee Thursday. Each one supported the legislation, including Emily Weikert Bryant, the executive director for Feeding Indiana's Hungry, the state association for food banks in Indiana.

“The charitable sector really only covers maybe 10 percent of hunger relief in this country," said Bryant. "The other 90 percent comes from federal programs, most largely the SNAP program. If you go to a pantry, you can get food to last you a couple of days, but SNAP benefits are a monthly benefit and you can go to the grocery store, buy what you need and what your family wants.”

Bryant said there are approximately 636,000 Hoosiers who receive SNAP benefits. It's difficult to tally how many more people could be eligible if legislation passes.

She added that the federal policy for the SNAP program calls for it to not allow for drug offenders to enroll, but states can choose to ignore that particular rule.

Indiana is one of four states to not allow felon drug offenders into the program.

“Even if you’re convicted of SNAP fraud, on your first offense, you can get a SNAP card again," said Bohacek.

Bryant said the rule was put in place during the "war on drugs," and no other Hoosiers with a felony are banned from the program.

"It's probably going to save a life or two," said Merritt. "Many people who leave prison, and were addicts before or during their prison term, they’re tolerance is low and many times people who come out of prison are lost and hungry and may use again. If their tolerance is low they may die. That’s why we need to make sure people every ability to succeed once they leave incarceration."

The legislation would not affect how many Hoosiers will be eligible for the program or how much a qualified recipient would receive.