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Drug tests start for Minnesota felons on state aid

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 that 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.

St. Louis County has contracted with the Bethel Work Release Program in Duluth and Arrowhead Center in Virginia to complete drug testing on clients identified as past drug felons.

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.

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 past 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 that 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.

“Our sense that it is too soon to tell what impact the matching and drug testing will have on clients and counties statewide because it is just being implemented,” said Karen Smigielski, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

Smigielski said the state law doesn’t require matching for the federal SNAP food stamp program. But she said the state “has told counties that if they know a recipient has a felony drug conviction they can do random drug testing” on SNAP recipients.Since 1997, public assistance recipients were asked to voluntarily disclose if they had been convicted of a drug felony crime, but the state’s 87 counties hadn’t been actively checking the felon list against their list of aid recipients.

Residents with felony drug convictions who are receiving benefits are subject to a random urinalysis before their next review as a condition of eligibility. Those reviews occur every six or 12 months. County social workers contact the recipient client and instruct them to go in for a urinalysis. If they pass, they receive benefits as usual.

If the person fails the urinalysis, they are sanctioned under the state Department of Human Services policy. That could mean a partial reduction or complete termination of benefits, Busche said, depending on the assistance program and the family circumstance.

If the person fails to appear for a drug test without good cause, he or she will lose eligibility due to noncooperation. Clients are given the opportunity to clear their sanction by completing and passing a second urinalysis within a month’s time. The process is repeated before each review after that point.

A second failed test results in a permanent disqualification for the identified drug felon. The identified drug felon may continue to receive benefits if he or she has participated in a drug-treatment program, completed a drug-treatment program or has been assessed by the county as not needing a drug-treatment program.

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