Archive for May, 2012

Drug Testing Public Benefits Recipients is an Assault on the Poor

The Ohio General Assembly recently proposed and later withdrew an amendment to the Midbiennium Budget Review, House Bill 487, requiring that all new applicants for Ohio Works First (OWF) for whom there is “reasonable cause to suspect . . . chemical dependence”, be tested, at their own expense, for illegal drug use.  If such drug use was found, or if the individual did not cooperate, their OWF benefits could be cut or they could be required to have their benefits paid to a non-relative “protective payee” who would manage the OWF benefits for the entire assistance group.  If the test did not find illegal drugs, the agency would reimburse the applicant for the cost of the test.

There is also an even stricter bill still pending in the Ohio Senate.  Senate Bill 69 requires all applicants eighteen years of age or older for all need-based benefits (cash, food, medical, housing, or energy), but not Unemployment Compensation, to undergo a drug test, also at their own expense, to determine whether the applicant has a controlled substance abuse problem. Refusal to undergo a drug test will make the individual ineligible for benefits and preclude them from applying for the program again for at least 30 days.

Costs of the tests have been estimated to be between $15 and $60. Even the lower cost estimate would present a barrier for many Ohioans applying for assistance.

The Columbus Dispatch reported on May 18 that “Gov. John Kasich affirmed his support yesterday for a pilot program to drug-test some Ohio welfare recipients before they receive benefits, countering objections from critics that such a move would be discriminatory and punitive.”

Similar bills have been introduced in other states across the country.  In Florida, early results from the state’s law requiring public benefits applicants to take a drug test have shown NO savings.  And the Southern Center for Human Rights is already threatening to file a lawsuit to stop the program, which, of course, costs money to defend.

Studies in other states have also found that the percentage of public benefits recipients who abuse drugs is about the same as in the general population. Use of illegal drugs is a problem, but it is not a problem limited to, or concentrated in, the low-income community, so we should not be targeting low-income public benefits applicants for greater scrutiny.

It would be much better for Ohio to recognize substance abuse as a health issue and expand the availability of confidential drug treatment programs so that every Ohioan who needs assistance, regardless of where they live, could get that assistance without risk to their public benefits or other services.

OPLC is concerned about these proposals because they create a de facto application fee for OWF in Ohio that will act as a barrier to obtaining benefits, violate individual privacy rights, disproportionately affect people with disabilities, utilize unqualified County Department of Job and Family Services staff to conduct assessments, jeopardize family stability, and perpetuate the stereotype that all or most welfare recipients are drug users.

Because we expects this issue to surface again in future legislation, OPLC attorneys and summer interns will be researching legal challenges and social implications of drug testing bills.  We are especially interested in the legal, constitutional, and privacy issues and the significance of creating an application fee for OWF in Ohio.  We will share our research and findings over the summer.

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Collateral Sanctions Bills Will Help Ohioans Get Back on Their Feet

“You want to give people a chance and help them get their lives back”

       – John Kasich, Governor of Ohio

Many advocates for the poor know what “collateral sanctions” are and how they impact our low-income client population, but many members of the general public might not realize what they are or how harmful they can be.  The American Bar Association defines “collateral sanctions” as: “a legal penalty, disability or disadvantage, however denominated, that is imposed on a person automatically upon that person’s conviction for a felony, misdemeanor or other offense, even if it is not included in the sentence.”

In Ohio, this can mean everything from laws that prevent people who have been convicted of very serious violent crimes from working in fields where their criminal histories may put others at risk (for example, preventing people with child rape convictions from working with children) to rules and regulations preventing anyone with any kind of criminal conviction from working in various licensed fields (preventing, for example, someone with a 20 year old drug conviction from working as a hair stylist).  More information about how this impacts Ohioans is here.  For a complete list of the collateral sanctions Ohioans are subject to, the Office of the Ohio Public Defender maintains an online database of collateral sanctions, which can be accessed here.

Pending Collateral Sanctions Bills

Two identical collateral sanctions bills – House Bill 524 and Senate Bill 337 – have been introduced in the Ohio General Assembly. These bills are pending in the House Judiciary and Ethics Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively. The legislation seeks to remove various barriers that ex-offenders face to obtaining employment and economic self-sufficiency.  See the Legislative Services Commission analysis of each bill here and here.  For more perspective on these bills, read the Ohio Justice and Policy Center‘s testimony in support of HB 524 here, and for news coverage, click here and here.

Why Is This Important For Poverty Law Advocates and The People They Serve?

Passage of this legislation will benefit Ohioans with prior criminal records by giving them greater freedom to work and benefit the Ohio economy.  One in six Ohioans have criminal records, and this legislation will allow to become productive, tax-paying workers.

Here are some things these proposed bills would do that are particularly relevant to poverty law advocates:

  1. Remove employment barriers by reducing the number of disqualifying criminal offenses for eight occupations ranging from cosmetology to construction contractor and providing a legal mechanism for ex-offenders to seek relief from disqualifications resulting from other criminal convictions by requesting and Order of Limited Relief.
  2. Encourage employers to hire ex-offenders by protecting employers who hire people with Orders of Limited Relief from negligent-hiring liability.
  3. Increase judges ’discretion not to suspend drivers licenses in various non-driving cases and authorizes a court to award limited occupational driving privileges to a child support obligor whose driver’s license is suspended for nonpayment of child support.
  4. Create a rebuttable presumption against imputing income for child support purposes  to a parent who is incarcerated or institutionalized for a period of 12 months or more with no other available assets.
  5. Establish a rebuttable presumption, in criminal cases, that a person is indigent in connection with the payment of a court fine, cost, or a fee if the person has an income that is equal to or less than the federal income poverty level.
  6. Expand the scope and number of  offenses for which an ex-offender may seek to seal his record “not more than one felony conviction and not more than one misdemeanor conviction in this state [Ohio] or any other jurisdiction.”
  7. Modify the procedures for sealing juvenile records.

We hope you will join OPLC in supporting HB 524 and SB 337.

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Commentary: Credit Reporting and Debt Collection: Huge Pitfalls for Consumers

By: Linda Cook, Senior Attorney, Ohio Poverty Law Center

              Credit reporting agencies . . . need to be much more transparent, accountable and accessible for consumers.”

This week, the Columbus Dispatch ran a four-part series titled “Credit Scars,” exposing problems and telling the stories of consumers who have been harmed as a result of problems in the credit reporting industry.  Gene King and I talked to Jill Riepenhoff, one of the investigative reporters, last fall when she was starting her investigation.  We were glad to see Jill and her colleague take the story and run with it.  Each piece of the investigative report emphasizes different aspects of the credit reporting industry and highlights the consumer nightmares that happen when things go wrong.  To me, this stuff is scarier than the horror films I avoid because once I see them, I cannot get the horrific images out of my brain.  It is scary because credit reporting agencies are poorly understood, barely regulated agencies lurking in the background of our lives, exercising influence over our economic health and wellbeing, using personal and private information in ways we as ordinary consumers have little or no control over.

Credit reporting agencies actually can have a positive function in the economy for both consumers and businesses. However, they need to be much more transparent, accountable and accessible for consumers.  The system for correcting errors must be more user-friendly.  In many ways, these agencies are set up like mortgage servicers – most of their resources are dedicated to collecting and reporting credit information to businesses, and very few of their resources are reserved for addressing consumer issues.  So, the more problems are exposed, the better for all of us.  As Justice Louis Brandeis said:  “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants . . . .”

Exposing problems with the credit reporting industry also exposes problems with its sister industry,  debt collection.  Parking ticket judgments on consumer credit reports is a highly effective collection tool, and has spawned an entire dubious for-profit industry dedicated to cleaning up credit reports and improving credit scores.  All of these industries are in need of some strong disinfectant.

The Dispatch investigative series is one ray of sunshine; another is the attention that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is beginning to focus on the credit reporting and debt collection industries.  The Bureau’s first step was to issue a proposed regulation defining “larger participants” in certain consumer financial product and service markets.  The consumer reporting and debt collection markets fall into this category.  Only larger market participants will fall under the supervisory authority of the CFPB, so the definition is a critical first step toward greater accountability and better protection for consumers.

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