Friday, January 3, 2014

The Cautionary Instruction: Drug testing for welfare recipients costly and ineffective

Matthew T. Mangino
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
January 3, 2014

This year, Missouri became the most recent state to institute drug testing for welfare recipients, reported the Kansas City Star. After eight months and 636 drug tests, the program turned up 20 people who tested positive and about 200 who refused to comply. Roughly 32,000 people in the state applied for assistance since testing began.

The program’s price: Nearly $500,000.

“I think it’s just astronomical,” said State Rep. Stacey Newman, “It’s a horrible waste of state resources.”

In Florida, out of 4,086 drugs tests from July through October 2011, 108 welfare recipients tested positive. Florida spent $115,000 on the testing and was forced to reimburse welfare recipients who had lost their benefits $600,000.

This week, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven struck down Florida’s law requiring applicants for welfare benefits to undergo mandatory drug testing, ruling it was unconstitutional and should not be enforced. There was a temporary order of court in place that Judge Scriven now made permanent.

Opponents of the law have argued it was an unconstitutional search and seizure. The judge agreed, writing that there was no pervasive drug problem among applicants for welfare benefits.

Florida Governor Rick Scott had backed the drug testing of prospective welfare recipients, arguing it helped protect taxpayers and families. He said in a statement that his administration would appeal the court’s decision.

Two states this year – North Dakota and Virginia – rejected bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients. Those measures would have cost between $400,000 and $500,000.

Last August, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory vetoed a drug testing bill, saying it was too costly and ineffective. Lawmakers overrode his decision, but McCrory vowed not to implement the law until legislators appropriated enough money to pay for the program.

Supporters of drug testing insist that the measures are really about changing behaviors. “Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy,” says Oklahoma State Rep. Guy Liebmann, “and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment.”

Opponents say it’s not that simple. Welfare “recipients have only committed the crime of poverty. There is no reason to suspect them of drug use simply for needing assistance, and no reason to penalize the children for their parents' sins,” said Matthew Bodie a professor and associate dean at Saint Louis University School of Law.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 is due out this summer.

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