Floridians believe that people deserve second chances.
Yet among those who find it hardest to get that second chance are people who have been incarcerated. Upon their release, many face a myriad of stumbling blocks to moving forward, like finding housing, transportation, or jobs.
One thing that adds to their dilemma is the inability to put food on the table.
But there is a fix for that. USDA allows states the flexibility to pre-enroll people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which allows them to have immediate access to food as soon as they are released. FNS calls it the Pre-Release Application Program.
This is an important flexibility. Making food immediately available to eligible Floridians who have completed their sentences would help them get back on their feet. Right now, although food is a basic necessity, people who are reentering their communities often lack the money to grocery shop.
At the same time, making sure that returning citizens have food to eat is about more than just fighting hunger and giving them a fighting chance to move forward. It also saves the state money by reducing costs associated with recidivism.
Getting a SNAP Pre-Release Application Program off the ground should be a priority for Florida. A collaboration of state-wide organizations and advocates promoting anti-hunger and criminal justice reform have offered their assistance to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to help put this program in place. It is time for Florida to take them up on their offer to help—and ask U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for permission to run the program as a pilot. Ensuring that people who are reentering their communities have access to basic supports, like food, makes for long-term success and a better Florida for everyone.
What is SNAP?
SNAP is a highly effective and efficient food assistance program that provides modest grocery assistance to households with low-income every month. In Florida, the average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $127.
SNAP is administered by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) on the federal level and by DCF on the state level. The federal government pays 100 percent of the cost of the SNAP benefits that Florida provides to eligible households, although the state shares costs of administering the program.
How long does it take returning citizens to get SNAP if they wait to apply until after they are released?
Although people who are reentering their communities can apply for SNAP immediately upon their release, it takes, at a minimum, anywhere between a week and a month after they apply for them to be able to access their food assistance.
And this is the best-case scenario. Oftentimes, people leaving prison face additional barriers to completing their SNAP application that hold up processing their eligibility even longer, like figuring out where to get their EBT card mailed if they do not have an address yet, securing a computer or phone so that they can communicate with DCF about their application, and finding proof of their identity to give to DCF. In addition, returning citizens often have so many unmet needs to attend to, such as finding an apartment, car, and a job, that applying for SNAP may not be the first thing they address when they return to their communities.
How would a SNAP Pre-Release Application Program help returning citizens and save the state money, too?
People who were formerly incarcerated experience hunger at a higher rate, which can be addressed, in large part, by SNAP. . Being hungry also creates stress and causes people to act without thinking and make bad decisions. The bottom line is that access to food helps people successfully reenter their communities and be less likely to recommit.
In addition, a SNAP Pre-Release Application Program would cut costs for the state. This is because people who do not have the means to eat are more likely to reoffend—at a significant expense to the state. In addition, a pre-release program would also save the state time and money that results from delaying or denying SNAP applications filed before applicants have the address, technology, or documentation to complete their request for assistance.
Why does DCF have to ask USDA for permission to run a SNAP Pre-Release Application Program?
Under federal law, people who live in institutions that provide them most of their meals--like prisons--don’t ordinarily qualify for SNAP. In most cases, people in those institutions who apply for SNAP will be denied—even if they are about to be released. Unless the state has permission from USDA to run a SNAP Pre-Release Application Program, people who are incarcerated must wait until they are released before they can apply, have their applications processed, be approved, and start accessing their SNAP benefits.
To get permission to run a pre-release program, even as a pilot, the state must submit a waiver request to FNS. Among other information, the waiver request must contain justification for the request and the anticipated impact on households and the agency itself. Currently, approximately nine states, including Tennessee, run SNAP Pre-Release Application Programs.
Does DCF have the capacity to administer the pilot?
DCF has “modernized” its SNAP program by using technology instead of staff to administer and deliver SNAP benefits, such as online applications and phone interviews. Given the success of DCF’s modernization of the administration and delivery of SNAP benefits, a pre-release application pilot should not unduly strain the Department’s current delivery system. This is especially true considering the army of non-profit organizations that are ready to help with this project and the negligible number of applications that this pilot would add to DCF’s overall caseload.
Of course, not all people due to be released from prison in Florida would initially be able to participate in a pre-release application program. At first, the program would likely be limited to a small number of institutions so that DCF can test its efficacy and bolster its capability to expand the program. In addition, not every inmate scheduled for release will choose to apply for SNAP early.
Nonetheless, although not an absolute necessity, it would be helpful for DCF to dedicate a phone line and/or all or part of a staff person to handle the administrative side of the pilot. To do this, DCF could consider using some of its ARPA SNAP administrative funds to that end.
How many Floridians would potentially be affected by a SNAP Pre-Release Application Program?
The Department of Corrections estimates that about 86 percent of people in prison in Florida will eventually be released. In fiscal year 2020-2021 alone, an average of 2,208 people per month were released from Florida prisons. A pre-release application pilot program would not only result in cost savings to the state from lower recidivism rates, but also meet a critical need for many of these Floridians.
Although the needs of people who were formerly incarcerated are complex, immediate access to food is an important component to consider in helping to mitigate recidivism. Florida should be doing all it can to ensure that essential support is in place to address the food insecurity of returning citizens. A good starting point is to implement a SNAP Pre-Release Application Program as a pilot, an investment whose time is long overdue.