Starting March 1, 2021, Orange County inmates will be able to apply for CalFresh benefits (formerly called food stamps) up to 30 days before their release under a pilot program recently approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Addressing basic daily needs in order to ensure a successful transition back into the community is part of an aggressive County criminal justice reform strategy known as the Integrated Services Strategy.

“Over the past two years, through the Integrated Services Strategy, we have identified and addressed many gaps in Orange County’s criminal justice system to help reduce recidivism,” said Supervisor Andrew Do, Chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. “I am pleased that we received a federal waiver for the CalFresh Pre-Enrollment of Inmates Pilot Program. This is exactly the kind of change we need to create a more effective re-entry system.”

Under current law, incarcerated individuals are ineligible to receive food assistance. Therefore, inmates’ CalFresh accounts are terminated by the Social Services Agency once they are booked in jail. Without this program, these inmates must wait until their release to reapply for CalFresh benefits. As a result, they experience a gap in coverage even if they apply immediately upon release, creating a lack of stability necessary for successful transition back into the community.

Before the pandemic, some 40,000 individuals entered the Orange County jail system approximately 60,000 times in a given year. Nearly half of Orange County’s jail inmates have an identified mental illness or substance use disorder requiring treatment. One fifth of inmates are homeless, and many more are at a high risk of homelessness. These figures are even higher among “high utilizers” – 2,000 individuals who are booked in custody four or more times per year.

“As a former Deputy Public Defender, I know many former inmates can struggle to meet their basic needs when they are released back into the world, often without a job and sometimes without family support,” said Chairman Do. “Government should set incarcerated persons up for success post-release, and that effort must begin the moment they enter our custody.”

In 2019, Chairman Do led the Orange County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council through a year-long effort to identify gaps in the criminal justice system and prepare an action plan to resolve these shortcomings. This resulted in the Integrated Services Strategy, adopted by the Board of Supervisors in October 2019.

The CalFresh Pre-Enrollment of Inmates Pilot Program falls under Pillar 4 (Reentry), Goal 2, Action Item 3 of the Integrated Services Strategy. The Orange County Social Services Agency took the lead in developing this pilot program and applying for federal approval through the California Department of Social Services.

The CalFresh Pre-Enrollment of Inmates Pilot Program is just one of many initiatives the Board has engaged in to promote access to food assistance. In 2018, the Board of Supervisors launched the Restaurant Meals Program, which allows CalFresh recipients to buy warm, nutritious meals at local restaurants. In its first full year, 2019, over 85,000 Restaurant Meal Program transactions were completed in Orange County, generating $889,000 in revenue for local businesses. Chairman Do also orchestrated multiple outreach events in 2019 that helped hundreds of seniors to sign up for CalFresh Benefits.

The article above was released by the County of Orange.

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