Store employees work to stock shelves at a ShopRite supermarket on April 13, 2020, in Plainview, New York. Photo by Bruce Bennett | Getty Images
A bill to help individuals with drug-related felony convictions keep food on the table cleared committee on Wednesday, taking its first step toward becoming law.
The bill won approval in the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by the measure’s sponsor, Snowflake Republican Rep. Walt Blackman. It seeks to ease access for those with felony convictions to the Supplementary Nutritional Program, or SNAP, by removing the caveats that applicants must agree to random drug testing and be part of a substance abuse treatment program, or have a doctor vouch for their lack of addiction.
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House Bill 2060 passed unanimously and is awaiting consideration by the full House of Representatives.
Blackman, who has pushed to reform the state’s criminal justice system in both big and small ways throughout his legislative career, has high hopes for this one.
“When folks exit prison, they have quite a number of hurdles,” he said to committee members. “(Accessing) the SNAP program is taking away one of these.”
Mark Barnes, a lobbyist for the Arizona Food Bank Network, said the bill’s potential impact on recidivism rates is a valuable reason to support it. One study found that access to SNAP benefits within the first year since release can reduce recidivism by as much as 10% .
When the cost of reoffense is borne by taxpayers, Barnes said, lowering recidivism rates should be at the forefront of legislative minds.
“The average cost to incarcerate is about $70 a day, or $25,000 a year,” he said.
Because SNAP is federally funded, it doesn’t cost the state extra money except in administrative fees. The federal burden on Arizonans can be made up with time.
“We’re all federal taxpayers, but if the program works to reduce recidivism and makes somebody a productive member of society — paying federal taxes — they can pay back the federal cost,” Barnes said.
The bill doesn’t expand the definitions of who can access SNAP benefits, but instead removes barriers to the formerly incarcerated who are already eligible. It also does away with the requirement to be convicted after August 22, 1996, which would open up the program to anyone with a felony offense involving drug use or possession. Everyone who was income eligible for SNAP in the past, Barnes said, will continue to be eligible.
Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria , asked if the elimination of random drug tests for SNAP applicants with drug related felony convictions would mean reoffenders could potentially be missed.
Blackman responded that probation already requires drug testing.
“We’re actually double taxing folks. Taxpayers will end up paying more money because we’re having them (get tested) twice,” he said.
People with felony convictions who have finished their probationary period and later apply for SNAP benefits, however, do not undergo regular drug testing and the new bill would mean they wouldn’t be required to take random drug tests to qualify for SNAP benefits. This was a concern for Rep. Neal Carter, R-Queen Creek.
“When I complete my probation, there is no reason for me to take a drug test – I’ve completed my jail sentence and paid my restitution. That’d be like asking you to go and take a drug test (after) you have a traffic ticket and already paid it,” Blackman shot back.
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