Obtaining Federal Benefits for Disabled Offenders: Part 1-Social Security Benefits
Moses, Marilyn, Potter, Roberto Hugh, Corrections Today
The typical offender reentry plan involves, at a minimum, efforts to help the offender secure a job, find affordable and safe housing, and comply with other conditions of release. But reentry plans for offenders who have special needs--who are mentally ill or have HIV/AIDS, for example--can be far more complex.
Corrections staff in most facilities do not typically help inmates apply for federal entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid as part of reentry planning. For severely ill inmates, discharge planning that includes assistance in applying for federal disability benefits is still more the exception than the rule.
To understand more about how to plan for reentry of special needs offenders, health care providers and corrections administrators approached the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to learn about disability benefits and the efficacy of efforts to obtain disability entitlements for soon-to-be-released offenders.
This month's NIJ Update is the first of several that discuss findings from the NIJ/CDC co-funded research. This article describes the results of efforts in Texas and New York to release offenders from prison with social security benefits. Next month's column will describe research that examined the effectiveness of Medicaid in keeping offenders from returning to jail.
The Bottom Line
The sites involved in the NIJ/CDC study maintain that helping offenders obtain federal disability benefits not only can increase their access to community-based care, it can also: 1) reduce the financial burden on state and local governments that fund indigent health care systems and 2) increase the number of disabled offenders who receive treatment. However, the challenges are significant: The process takes a long time; it can be confusing; and there is no guarantee an offender will qualify for benefits.
Obtaining federal disability benefits should be viewed as only one facet of a much broader discharge plan. Even releasees who ultimately qualify for and receive benefits are likely to find it challenging to avoid relapse or recidivism, unless other supports, such as case management services and housing are made available.
The Social Security Administration administers two programs that provide monthly cash benefits to disabled people who meet certain criteria. The two programs are Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, commonly referred to as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
People who acquire a disabling impairment while committing a felony are barred for life from receiving SSDI and SSI benefits based on that impairment, although they may have other impairments that qualify them for benefits. In addition, federal law prohibits payment of benefits to applicants if drug or alcohol abuse is the sole or primary diagnosis.
Social Security Disability Insurance. To qualify for SSDI, an applicant must meet certain nonmedical criteria and must be found to have a physical or mental impairment that either has lasted, or is expected to last, for at least a year or will result in death. The impairment must be so severe that the individual cannot engage in substantial gainful employment. The amount of a person's SSDI payment varies according to how much the person contributed to social security while employed.
Supplemental Security Income. Unlike SSDI, SSI is a means-tested entitlement that is financed, not through worker contributions, but through general tax revenues. It is available to aged, blind or disabled people who have limited assets and income. Recipients must be U.S. citizens or "qualified aliens." (1) Because SSI is considered a benefit of last resort, applicants must agree to apply for all other cash benefits to which they may be entitled (such as pensions, veterans benefits, SSDI) before they receive SSI. …