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Missouri lawmakers consider ending lifetime food stamp ban for drug felons

Updated: 2014-02-13T13:12:32Z

By MARIE FRENCH

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

— Early hearings this year in both chambers have given hope to some supporters of an end to the lifetime ban from food stamps faced by individuals convicted of drug-related felonies.

Bill sponsor Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, said the change would help reduce the likelihood of a person relapsing and returning to prison.

“I think it gives folks an opportunity to succeed,” Curls said. “I think it’s time for significant discussion to be had on this issue.”

The ban was part of 1996 welfare legislation that banned those with drug-related offenses from ever receiving temporary food assistance. Missouri is one of only ten states that have not lifted or modified the ban, which states can opt out of.

Johnny Waller Jr. from Kansas City, said he had a drug related offense on his record from when he was 18. Waller said after serving his sentence in Nebraska, he did not need food stamps. But when his son was diagnosed with cancer, he had to quit his job to care for him.

“When I needed some assistance, none was available for something I did when I was 18,” Waller said. He said he’s heard the company he now works for may be laying off people and he worries he’d not be able to get food stamps if he needed them. Waller was pardoned by Nebraska’s governor in 2011.

“I can go buy a firearm but I can’t get assistance to buy a sandwich,” Waller said.

There’s bipartisan support to lift the ban. Rep. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, said there was enough support from Republicans to pass the measure in the House. Last year, it didn’t get as early a start and Wieland said it ended up on an omnibus bill that died in the Senate. This year, he hopes to keep it separate and get it out of committee early.

Hearings on both the Senate and House bills were held this week.

He said he sees it as a tool to bridge the gap when people are released from prison. It’s also a matter of fairness, Wieland said.

Other types of crimes – including violent crimes such as murder, assault or child molestation – don’t carry this lifetime ban.

“You get out of jail and within 72 hours you’re eligible for food stamps,” Wieland said. “By denying people convicted of drug offenses food stamps, we’re making it more difficult for them.”

Wieland’s bill would require either four years to have passed since the conviction or that the applicant take a sobriety test to qualify for the benefits. He said a committee substitute he plans to submit will require both of those as some had approached him with concerns.

Curls said she was open to some meaningful discussion on changes to help move the bill forward.

The bills are HB 1589 and SB 680.

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