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Criminal Charges and Convictions
Criminal Record Barriers to Public Entitlements

Public benefits can be critical for people with a criminal record who are trying to rebuild their lives, reunite with families, and reintegrate into communities. If you have a criminal record, there are federal and state laws that can place significant barriers or completely bar you from receiving certain types of benefits. The following information provides more information about how these laws may affect people with criminal records and their families.

Can I receive cash assistance if I have been convicted of drug distribution?

  • General Assistance: WorkFirst New Jersey (WFNJ) provides cash assistance to single people and childless couples through the General Assistance (GA) program. Under New Jersey law, any person convicted on or after August 22, 1996 of a felony drug distribution offense will be permanently ineligible to receive GA. This lifetime bar applies to any offense involving distribution, including conspiracy and intent to distribute drugs. 
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: WFNJ also provides temporary cash assistance to eligible families through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. New Jersey provides TANF benefits to families headed by people who have drug convictions for possession, use, or distribution. There is no restriction on TANF benefits due to a prior drug conviction.

Can I receive cash assistance if I have been convicted of drug possession? 

If you were convicted of a “possession and use” felony drug offense, you may be eligible for GA benefits if you are enrolled in (or have completed) a licensed treatment program. You will be eligible for benefits under this exception as soon as you are enrolled in a program and for as long as you stay enrolled or complete the program. During the program, and in the 60 days after completion, you may be tested for drug use, and if you test positive, you will lose your eligibility. Participation in the Substantive Abuse Initiative (SAI) program can be voluntary, but in some cases treatment is mandatory (required). Again, there is no restriction on TANF benefits due to a prior drug conviction, but you may be required to participate in the SAI if the agency has reason to believe that you have an ongoing issue with drugs or alcohol.

Can I receive food stamps/SNAP if I have been convicted of a drug-related crime?

The official name of the food stamp program is now Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). There are no limits on SNAP benefits due to a drug conviction, whether for possession or distribution. You are eligible for SNAP benefits as long as you meet SNAP’s other eligibility requirements.

Can I receive Medicaid if I have been convicted of a drug-related crime? 

Medicaid is a federal program with no bar for past drug convictions. People with any type of past drug conviction are eligible for Medicaid.

Am I eligible for Social Security benefits if I have a criminal record?

Yes, unless you are a “fleeing felon.” The fleeing felon provision of the Social Security Act states that no person shall be considered eligible for Social Security benefits for any month during which the person is fleeing to avoid prosecution or jail time after being convicted of a crime which is a felony under the law of the state where the crime occurred. The law applies to anyone receiving benefits through Social Security, including retirement, survivor, disability, and special veterans benefits.

What about public housing or Section 8?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recognizes the needs of people with criminal records and generally urges Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) to use their discretion to admit applicants with criminal records rather than deny them subsidized housing. PHAs have the freedom to adopt policies that allow people with criminal records to live with their families in stable housing.

There are two exceptions under federal law. PHAs must deny admission to the following people:

  • Any person subject to a lifetime sex offender registration program
  • Any person convicted of manufacturing or producing methamphetamine on the premises of federally assisted housing

If you or a household member has been evicted from public housing for drug-related criminal activity within the past three years, your application could be denied, unless you can show that the person evicted has successfully completed a supervised drug rehabilitation program approved by the PHA or that the person no longer lives in your household.

At their discretion, a PHA may also deny admission to any applicant or household member who:  

  • Is abusing alcohol or using another drug illegally, and whose illegal use or pattern of alcohol abuse may interfere with the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents; 
  • Is engaged in any drug-related criminal activity and any violent criminal activity, or any other criminal activity that would affect the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents; or
  • Has a history of crimes of violence or other criminal acts that could adversely affect other residents.

Under federal law, a PHA may deny an applicant if the criminal activity occurred within a “reasonable time” before the admission decision.

Even if you or someone in your household have a conviction that disqualifies you from public housing, you can become eligible if you convince the PHA that you or the household member with the conviction are not a risk and will not hurt other tenants. The PHA will consider people with criminal histories on a case-by-case basis, focusing on evidence of rehabilitation, for example, participation in or completed a supervised alcohol or drug rehabilitation program and any other successful form of rehabilitation. The PHA can also consider circumstances, including, but not limited to:

  • The seriousness of the criminal activity;
  • The length of time since the offense;
  • The age of the household member at the time of the offense; and
  • The effect a denial will have on the household and the community.

If you are denied admission or are evicted from public housing or Section 8 housing because of criminal activity, you must be given a written notice explaining the reason for denial or termination. The PHA must also give you a copy of the criminal background report and give you a chance to dispute the accuracy and relevance of the record. The notice should inform you that you have a right to request an informal hearing to contest the denial or termination, and explain how to ask for an informal hearing.

To find out if you are eligible for any of the benefits listed above, you can contact Legal Services of New Jersey’s Prisoner Reentry Project (PREP) by calling LSNJLAWSM, LSNJ's statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529). PREP provides assistance in civil matters to eligible inmates and those with criminal records to help successful transition back into society.