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2019 0119 SNAP 01

Del. John Shott, R-Mercer, presides over the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee meeting Friday.

CHARLESTON — Currently in West Virginia, a person convicted of mass murder could receive food assistance from the state if he or she is released from prison, but a felony drug conviction comes with a lifetime ban.

Legislators hope to make that more fair and hopefully give those who served their time a better second chance by repealing that ban.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is a federal program. Funds are distributed to states to be distributed to beneficiaries.

The lifetime ban on felony drug convicts is a federal law, but states can exempt themselves from the ban. West Virginia, Mississippi and South Carolina are the only states to still enforce the ban.

The ban was enacted in the '90s during the height of the "War on Drugs."

House Bill 2459, sponsored Del. John Shott, R-Mercer and chairman of the House of Delegates' Judiciary Committee, would exempt the state from the federal provision.

"If you appreciate fundamental fairness, you should like this bill," Shott told the Judiciary Committee on Friday.

Shott said as a board member of a substance use disorder treatment facility, he has seen how people sincerely working to get back on their feet struggle to find gainful employment, especially single mothers, sufficient enough to provide for their families.

"We should be anxious to see these people get back on their feet," he said.

Kayla Vanhorn testified during the committee meeting to her experience growing up with a single mother under the lifetime ban.

She said her mother was charged with possession of methamphetamines and was not a drug dealer. She never re-offended. It took her three or four years after being released before she could find any type of employment that would sustain them, Vanhorn said.

During that time, Vanhorn herself still qualified for assistance, but it was never enough.

"She would not eat sometimes just to give us food," Vanhorn said.

In 2016, 2,100 individuals with drug felonies were denied SNAP benefits, adding up to over $3.1 million in missed federal funds for the state, according to the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy.

Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, submitted an amendment to ban felony drug offenders from SNAP during the first two years following release, but he withdrew it after it became clear there was not enough support for it to pass.

As Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, said, the first two years upon release is the most vulnerable time for drug offenders, and barring them from assistance just increases the likelihood for recidivism.

In the end, Fast supported the bill but said it will result in drug dealers receiving tax-funded assistance.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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