- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia may soon lift a ban on food stamps for convicted drug offenders after they are released, in an effort to keep them from returning to prison.

Gov. Nathan Deal plans to sign legislation Wednesday making the state opt out of a federal lifetime ban on food stamps for those convicted of a drug-related felony. While the federal program calls for stiff restrictions on felons, states are allowed to opt out of the ban.

The post-release assistance is supposed help prevent recidivism. The initiative under Deal’s legislative agenda is part of a more comprehensive bill aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

The federal government has a lifetime ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for felony drug offenders, a component of a federal welfare reform bill signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. However, states can choose to opt out from the ban.

Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Macon Republican, sponsored the legislation and said there has been no opposition to the measure.

“I haven’t heard any negative commentary on this, and think that is largely because many have taken the opportunity to understand the bigger picture in what is being done with criminal justice reform,” Kennedy said. “They see this as one piece of a larger puzzle.”

Grace Bagwell Adams, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health and the Department of Health Policy and Management, said it’s important to note the difference between a full lift of the lifetime benefits ban and a modified ban.

Adams said Georgia’s new law will function as a modified ban, with drug convicts bound to the terms of their parole or probation in determining their eligibility for benefits. Modified bans may also include mandatory participation in a drug treatment program, among a slew of other possibilities.

“I think it will have positive benefits, and we could see other positive outcomes, like increased food security or decreased recidivism,” Adams said.

Georgia releases approximately 19,000 convicted felons per year, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. With the new legislation, those released from prison will have access to the SNAP benefits starting July 1.

Eric Cochling, executive vice president and general counsel for the Georgia Center for Opportunity, a non-partisan think tank, said forbidding an ex-offender access to food stamps means that they will be more likely to reoffend to meet a basic human need.

“When punishing those who break our laws, our society has to be honest and acknowledge when a punishment is counterproductive,” Cochling said.

Georgia is the latest state to consider opting out of the federal ban. Alabama and Texas recently scaled back on their food stamp bans for drug felons. If Deal follows through with his plan to sign the bill, that would leave Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina and West Virginia as the only states that still impose the federal ban.

The SNAP program has seen a decrease in total participants in Georgia year over year, dropping 3.4 percent from December 2014 to December 2015, according to federal data. That translates to roughly 62,000 participants. So officials say restoring benefits to drug offenders isn’t expected to strain the system.

Maya Dillard Smith, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, cited bi-partisan support for the reform effort, saying conservatives and progressives both understand the current criminal justice system is financially unsustainable.

“Success of the state’s criminal justice reform efforts will be determined by the investments made to prevent people from going into the system and preventing them from returning,” Smith said. “That will be achieved when there is adequate investment in mental health, substance abuse rehabilitation, job training and placement, and housing.”

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