Our State Legislature: Punishing the Poor

Continuing the war on the poor – an easy vote-getter in hard times – this Indiana General Assembly session launched a particularly mean-spirited offensive. HB 1007, which requires drug testing for adults applying for financial assistance for themselves or a child attracted over 50 House coauthors and passed the House 73-23.

The legislation gives the applicant a choice: either sign a consent to random drug testing, or refuse. A person who refuses is still subject to drug testing under “reasonable suspicion,” is more likely to be tested than one who consents, and the penalties for a positive test are more severe.

“Reasonable suspicion” includes prior criminal conviction, prior or suspected present drug use, or failure to attend a scheduled meeting or to complete online requirements regarding the assistance.

If a person consents to random testing (a certain percentage of those who consent must be tested) and the test is positive, the person is given a list of drug treatment programs and will be tested at least every 20 days. A person who does not test negative in two consecutive tests within four months is ineligible for financial aid for three months. On reapplying, the person must be tested and test negative.

If a person does not consent to random testing and tests positive, the person is ineligible for assistance for six months and any child will have the assistance reduced by 50% for six months. On reapplying, a person who tests positive will be permanently ineligible and a child will also be ineligible as long as the child lives with that person.

Mandatory drug testing policies violate Fourth Amendment protection, require applicants to sign away their civil liberties, are ineffective in treating addiction, disproportionately impact and stigmatize the poor and communities of color, promote the myth that those who need public aid use drugs at a greater rate than the general population, and waste taxpayer money.

It was the latter consideration that stalled the bill in the Senate committee. The fiscal note predicted a possible $1 million starting cost and high continuing costs. Drug testing is not only expensive but also misguided. In Indiana’s 2011 drug testing program for job applicants, only 13 of the more than 1,200 applicants failed their test. Yet the author of HB 1007, Representative Jud McMillin (R-Brookville), will be back next session “to save the state money from not paying welfare benefits to drug users.”

Stereotypes die hard.

Joan Laskowski
ACLU-Indiana Vice President for Legislation