A quiet win: SNAP, TANF eligibility bans end under new Alabama prison reform law

Tucked away in the new prison reform law that Gov. Robert Bentley signed Thursday is a big win for second chances in Alabama: an end to the state’s lifetime eligibility bans for SNAP and TANF assistance for people with a past felony drug conviction. It’s a win on an issue that has been an Arise priority since 2013, and it means a fresh start for people who have served their time and are seeking to rebuild their lives.

For ACPP, it all started in 2013 when Jacquelyn Hardy of Birmingham made a passionate case for ending the bans at our annual meeting, where members vote each year on our issue priorities. Before Hardy’s presentation, few of us knew that Alabama bars anyone with a felony drug offense from ever receiving food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Afterward, no one who heard her could forget.

Advocates found an ally in Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, who agreed to sponsor a bill to end Alabama’s lifetime SNAP and TANF bans for people who have completed their sentence or are successfully serving probation or parole. Coleman’s bill passed the Senate easily in 2014 but died in the House after losing a procedural vote.

Supporters didn’t give up, and their persistence worked. This year’s big breakthrough came during Senate floor debate on SB 67, the prison reform bill sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. Coleman offered language ending the SNAP and TANF bans as an amendment to Ward’s bill, and Ward agreed to support it. The Senate passed the prison reform bill, including the amendment, 32-2 in early April.

When the bill reached the House, Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, helped ensure that the language ending the SNAP and TANF bans remained in the bill. The House passed the measure 100-5 on May 7, and the Senate signed off on the House version the same day.

The prison reform law is set to take effect Jan. 30, 2016, but one big hurdle remains: Alabama still has to pay for it. None of the bill’s provisions, including the end to the SNAP and TANF bans, can go into effect until the Legislature appropriates $26 million to fund the bill’s other reform measures.

Even though the SNAP and TANF provision is almost entirely a question of federal costs, it will go into effect only if the prison reform funding is approved. Ward insists leaders have assured him the needed money will be included in the General Fund (GF) budget – one of the few glimmers of hope in the protracted battle over a GF budget that desperately needs new revenue to avoid deep cuts to vital services like corrections and health care.

For thousands of people leaving prison, the restoration of SNAP and TANF benefits will mean a huge improvement in their ability to make a fresh start and support their families. Thanks to the support of lawmakers like Coleman and Ward and the determination of advocates like Jacquelyn Hardy, Alabama has achieved a policy change that will help families for decades to come.

By Kimble Forrister, executive director. Posted May 21, 2015.