A Step Forward for Reentry and Food Security in Mississippi

On April 16, Governor Phil Bryant signed H.B. 1352, the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2019. H.B. 1352’s bipartisan reforms include a provision authored by the Mississippi Center for Justice, which opts out of a 1996 federal ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) eligibility for individuals with a drug felony conviction effective July 1. Mississippi is the 49th state to address the ban through legislation—a significant victory for reentry, food security, and racial, gender, and economic justice in our state.

Food security—the state in which all people at all times have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food—is essential to building healthy, equitable, and resilient communities. Yet in 2017, one in five Mississippians and one in four children statewide experienced food insecurity—the highest rates in the nation. SNAPis Mississippi’s first line of defense against this crisis. In December 2018, it helped 468,186 low-income Mississippians keep food on the table through a modest nutrition benefit of about $1.27 per person per meal, and provided workforce supports to help participants get back up on their feet. The gender wage gap and other economic injustices make women, especially single moms, disproportionately vulnerable to food insecurity compared to their male counterparts. As a result, low-wage women account for nearly two-thirds of all adult and senior SNAP participants nationwide.

Since 1996, the federal SNAP drug felony disqualification withheld this anti-hunger lifeline from the Mississippians who needed it most. A 2013 study found that 91 percent of individuals recently released from prison experienced food insecurity, and 37 percent went without eating for an entire day because they could not afford to purchase food. In states that lift the SNAP drug felony disqualification and among the non-drug felony offenders excluded from the ban, SNAP prevents hunger and provides workforce training to help people successfully reenter society and achieve self-sufficiency. Yet for 23 years, the federal SNAP disqualification has imposed a lifetime sentence of hunger, lost productivity, poor health, and even recidivism on Mississippians with a drug felony conviction. The federal ban exclusively punished people with drug-related felony convictions, including non-violent offenses such as possession. Many were convicted while struggling with a substance use disorder (e.g., opioid dependency) and before Mississippi established drug courts and other diversion programs.  Because of gender inequities in food insecurity and drug felony sentencing (women receive drug felony convictions at a higher rate than men), the lifetime ban disproportionately harms single moms and their children.

The odds are heavily stacked against low-wage women, single mothers, and other Mississippians who encounter our criminal justice system, but the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2019’s provision that opts out of the federal drug felony ban on SNAP and TANF will alleviate some of their most urgent and unjust barriers to success. We are grateful to the bipartisan coalition of legislators and advocates who made this reform possible, laying a promising foundation for future policy efforts to turn the tide of racial, economic, and gender injustice in our state and build a healthier and more food secure Mississippi for all.

Madeline Morcelle, JD, MPH, is a staff attorney at the Mississippi Center for Justice, where she focuses her legal and policy practice on cultivating healthy and just food access for all and protecting and strengthening public benefits.