Civil rights groups gain hearing vs. Mississippi on drug testing

July 31, 2014
Grace Smith

A new law, House Bill 49, which would require recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) payments to fill out new questionnaires, and possibly followed by drug testing, was scheduled to take effect July 1 in Mississippi.

A hearing on Tuesday morning, however, made a final effort to shield children from a law which would restrict access to welfare benefits. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and civil rights groups have been granted a public hearing in the law’s implementation, according to Josh Eidelson, writing for Bloomberg Businessweek.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services drafted the proposed regulation, which would cut off benefits for children if a parent refused or failed a drug test after completing a treatment program. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, says that HB49:
“Will help make a positive difference for families impacted by substance abuse.”

Mississippi legislators voted down a proposed amendment that would have required executives of government-subsidized companies to take drug tests and a second that would have required drug tests for legislators. Mississippi, along with 20 other states, has introduced (some states have pending) bills to test or screen TANF recipients for drugs in 2014. It is one of 10 states which have passed such a law since 2011.

In most states, some, or all, people who have felony drug convictions are also banned from receiving TANF benefits under a provision in the 1996 welfare reform bill. US senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) have announced they will seek to change this provision. Even though there are conservatives coming out for a softer policy on drugs and criminal justice, there are many counterparts in state legislatures who are not.
An article for the Jackson Free Press by Anna Wolfe reports that the ACLU of Mississippi urged the Mississippi Department of Human services to delay the implementation until after a public hearing.

“I shudder to wonder what would have happened if the ACLU, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Mississippi Center for Justice had not been paying attention. Would this law have just been implemented and these policies put out without any benefit of the public having the opportunity to be heard?” Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of ACLU of Mississippi, said Tuesday.

The ACLU has asked for a copy of the questionnaire for public review.

“We are hoping to be able to see what the drug screening instrument is, whether it’s the SASSI that is being used in Utah or another instrument that has been developed by possibly a local contractor,” Riley-Collins said.

Riley-Collins adds that the following questions have yet to be answered:

  • Who will pay for the drug testing?
  • Who will pay for the drug screening?
  • What type of screening device will be used?
  • How much will testing cost?
  • How much will treatment cost?

Emily Wagster Pettus, reporting for the Sun Herald, says the state Department of Human Services website shows that 4,347 adults and 12,914 children are receiving TANF benefits in May. The average monthly payment was $67.94 for an individual and $139.65 for a family.

House Public Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Sam Mims (R-McComb), says that Mississippi’s HB 49, is different from a similar law in Florida which was declared unconstitutional because Florida made the testing mandatory without first screening applicants with a questionnaire.