A Victory for Second Chances and Food Security in South Carolina

Posted on April 12, 2016

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South Carolina Legal Services won a significant victory for a client wrongly denied SNAP (food stamp) benefits. John made mistakes in the past and received a felony drug conviction but had turned his life around, gone back to school, and was working to get his career on track. The State of South Carolina had even recognized John’s progress by granting him a full pardon of his conviction. John applied for SNAP benefits, but his application was denied by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) based on an agency policy that prohibited individuals from collecting SNAP benefits if they had been convicted of a drug related felony–even if they have received a pardon. Moreover, DSS demanded that John pay back SNAP benefits he had received during an earlier period of unemployment.

SCLS represented John in an administrative hearing to argue that the DSS policy was unlawful because it conflicted with the state pardon statute. In South Carolina, a “pardon” means that “an individual is fully pardoned from all the legal consequences of his crime and of his conviction, direct and collateral, including the punishment, whether of imprisonment, pecuniary penalty or whatever else the law has provided.” S.C. Code Ann. § 24-21-940. Any legal consequence that is not removed due to a pardon must be plainly designated in statute.  Accordingly, the broad scope of a pardon includes restoring eligibility for SNAP benefits.

When DSS refused to overturn its unlawful policy at the administrative hearing, SCLS moved for reconsideration. DSS finally conceded that “a pardon is sufficient to reinstate one’s eligibility for SNAP benefits and that the DSS policy requiring an expungement is contradictory to our pardon statute and regulations and is therefore unenforceable.”

Because of SCLS’s advocacy, South Carolinians who have demonstrated their successful rehabilitation now have access to this important food benefit. Anyone who has been denied SNAP benefits due a criminal conviction, despite having received a pardon, should now be found eligible.  Sylvia Lewis, lead attorney on the case, said “I am grateful to have been able to represent this client and affect change in South Carolina.”

Persons interested in applying for a pardon of South Carolina criminal offenses can do so by going to http://www.dppps.sc.gov/Parole-Pardon-Hearings/Pardon-Application.  The pardon application is subject to a $100 fee, generally takes 7 to 9 months, and does not require an attorney.

Persons seeking free legal assistance can apply by calling South Carolina Legal Services’ Intake Office at 1-888-346-5592.

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