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John Myers, Forum News Service, Published November 19 2013

Mandatory drug tests start for Minnesota felons on welfare

DULUTH – St. Louis County social service officials have started enforcing Minnesota’s new drug-testing program for residents receiving state “welfare” benefits who previously have been convicted of a felony drug crime.

The county is following a little-known law passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 2012 requiring counties to test convicted drug felons who are receiving benefits under several state programs.

It’s the first time the state and counties have actively sought people who have felony records and are receiving assistance. Until now, state law required only “self-reporting” of a felony drug record, something that rarely happened.

Under the new law, the state court administrator is required to give its list of drug felons to the state Department of Human Services, which compares it with welfare recipients and passes on any matches to each county.

“This isn’t optional; all of the counties in the state are enforcing this as of now,” said Ann Busche, director of Public Health and Human Services for St. Louis County.

The county enforcement effort started in October and, as of this week, 187 recipients of assistance in St. Louis County have been identified as convicted drug felons, Busche said. That’s about 4 percent of the 4,616 people receiving a benefit under the most common state program.

County officials haven’t yet received a tally of how many of the 187 aid recipients with felony records have failed drug tests or refused to take them, jeopardizing their benefits.

Rhonda Porter, director of Clay County Social Services, said the state identified 19 drug felons in Clay County who were on one of the county’s four public assistance programs.

Those programs are the Minnesota Family Investment Program, General Assistance Program, Minnesota Supplemental Aid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

Porter said the county has been reaching out to those people, letting them know they were identified as convicted drug felons who receive public assistance. While there are nuances to each program, Porter said those 19 people will now be submitted to random drug tests.

“Failure and noncompliance could ultimately result in the termination of benefits,” she said.

Porter said the mechanism to randomly drug test convicted drug felons in the public assistance programs has been in place since 1997, but the county was relying on applicants to self-report.

Now, the state court administrator will compile a list twice a year and send it to the state Department of Human Services, which sends it to the counties.

Statewide, 1.62 percent of people on Minnesota Supplemental Aid, General Assistance or the Minnesota Family Investment Program have a drug felony conviction in the last 10 years, state officials said. Only 0.4 percent of the Minnesota Welfare to Work Program recipients were found to have felony drug crime records over the past 10 years, as far back as the new law requires the state agency to look.

About 1.2 percent of the state’s general population has been convicted of a felony drug crime, state officials report.

The Minnesota law is a compromise between those who say all welfare recipients should be drug-tested before receiving benefits and others who fear civil liberties are being sacrificed and that past wrongdoing shouldn’t prevent someone from receiving critical aid.

State officials are waiting to see how many people fail tests and begin to lose benefits under the new law.