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Virginia Repeals Benefits Ban for Drug Convictions

lawn and building
Virginia State Capitol. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Virginians with certain felony convictions can now qualify for public benefits.  Advocates say the new law, which took effect on July 1, breaks down some barriers for individuals reentering into the community.

Under a 1996 federal law, people convicted of drug-related felonies were banned from getting food stamps and cash assistance benefits. And the restrictions didn't extend to other felony convictions. However, the law gave states the discretion to opt-out of or modify the ban.

“Everybody thought that, ‘Oh, if you have a drug felony on your record, that means you're a bad person and you shouldn't get any help.’ But obviously we know that is not the case at all,” the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s Salaam Bhatti said. “Everybody makes mistakes and people shouldn't have a scarlet letter on them for the rest of their life because of that mistake.”

Bhatti is the public benefits attorney at VPLC. He said this disproportionately impacted low-income communities of color.

“When people with drug felonies would exit prison and reenter society, they already were barred from ever successfully reentering society because they couldn’t get help from the government — let alone all these other barriers where they can’t get jobs, or they can’t get loans from school,” Bhatti said.

Last year, 1,891 people with drug-related felonies were rejected from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. And in 2018, 104 individuals were deemed ineligible for Temporary Assistance Needy Families, or TANF — the cash assistance program.  

“When somebody who has a drug felony on their record applies for SNAP with their family —  let's say it's a family of three —  what happens is that the rest of the family can get the SNAP benefits, minus that one person. So the amount of benefits for three people would actually be two people,” Bhatti said. “It's really just a cruel and unjust law that made low income people suffer more than they already are suffering.” 

Bhatti said Virginians who are re-entering the community, and their families, will benefit from this new law — which now allows them to qualify for SNAP and TANF. He added this could also help returning civilians stay out of prison

“For states that have these bans in place on public benefits, recidivism increases. For the states that have repealed the bans, the recidivism decreases,” Bhatti said. Apples to apples, we were able to move forward with that here in Virginia and help people truly successfully reenter society by getting food on the table and getting some assistance to provide for their families.”