Food Insecurity and Collateral Consequences of Punishment Amidst the COVID‐19 Pandemic


SNAP and TANF restrictions provide a useful window into the insidious and spiteful nature of some collateral consequences of criminal convictions. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 2019.

Cynthia A. Golembeski , Ans Irfan  and Kimberly R. Dong

Bipartisan governmental representatives and the public support investment in health care, housing, education, and nutrition programs, plus resources for people leaving prison and jail (Halpin, 2018; Johnson & Beletsky, 2020; USCCR, 2019). The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 banned people with felony drug convictions from receiving food stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Food insecurity, recidivism, and poor mental and physical health outcomes are associated with such bans. Several states have overturned SNAP benefit bans, yet individuals with criminal convictions are still denied benefits due to eligibility criteria modifications. COVID‐19 has impaired lower‐income, food‐insecure communities, which disproportionately absorb people released from prison and jail. Reentry support is sorely lacking. Meanwhile, COVID‐19 introduces immediate novel health risks, economic insecurity, and jail and prison population reductions and early release. Thirty to 50 percent of people in prisons and jails, which are COVID‐19 hotspots, have been released early (Flagg & Neff, 2020; New York Times, 2020; Vera, 2020). The Families First Coronavirus Response Act increases flexibility in providing emergency SNAP supplements and easing program administration during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommends eliminating SNAP benefit restrictions based on criminal convictions, which fail to prevent recidivism, promote public safety, or relate to underlying crimes. Policy improvements, administrative flexibility, and cross‐sector collaboration can facilitate SNAP benefit access, plus safer, healthier transitioning from jail or prison to the community.