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Fingerprinting provision in NC welfare bill draws criticism

By Annalise Frank
afrank@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH North Carolina residents applying for welfare could be asked to provide their physical fingerprints to the Department of Social Services under a House bill that tightens regulations on benefit applicants.

The provision has angered Democrats and advocates for the poor, and raised concerns among DSS offices and law enforcement agencies about how prints would be collected and processed and who would pay for the procedure.

The bill – House Bill 392 – adds a search for outstanding felony warrants, and probation and parole violations to background checks already performed on benefit applicants. It also requires applicants to the Work First program, which provides families money and job training, to get drug tested if a county DSS office finds any reason to suspect them of illegal substance use.

DSS would use drug convictions, warrants and arrests from the past three years; drug screenings; and written tests to determine the reasonable suspicion necessary for drug testing.

The Senate approved an amended version of the bill July 10, and the House is expected to take it up Monday.

DSS needs to “have the tools necessary to ensure we’re not providing benefits to felons,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Dean Arp, a Republican from Monroe.

Democratic lawmakers and advocates for the poor have contested the bill’s provision on drug testing, which resulted in some language in the legislation being eliminated. The background checks haven’t generated as much backlash, but that changed after the fingerprinting provision came to light.

The bill would allow DSS to ask Work First and food stamp applicants for fingerprints, which would be used to perform federal background checks. DSS offices don’t currently fingerprint applicants.

Sen. Angela Bryant of Rocky Mount, a Democrat, voted for the Senate bill but says she wouldn’t have if she had been aware of the fingerprinting provision.

“I would have raised a big stink” and voted against the bill, she said. Both Bryant and her colleague Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, called it “overkill.”

No requirement for prints

Arp said nothing in the bill requires DSS workers to take fingerprints from all benefit applicants. He said county DSS would search through available state databases for outstanding felony warrants and parole violations.

This search would be name-based, and it wouldn’t require fingerprints. But if a DSS employee suspects an applicant is an out-of-state lawbreaker, DSS can make the person give his or her prints in order to get aid.

State-based inquiries won’t turn up out-of-state crimes. Arp said he wants to make sure North Carolina isn’t allowing fleeing felons or parole violators from other states to receive aid.

DSS would then send the prints on to the state Department of Justice’s State Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a nationwide, fingerprint-based background check.

“We’re leaving it to the Department (of Social Services), Department of Justice,” Arp said. “We’ve put into the bill that they come together and collaborate and make the rules that they want to see to work those things out.”

The State Bureau of Investigation does perform criminal background checks for non-criminal-justice agencies such as counties’ social services. But doing federal checks is another story, and the proposal does not currently meet required FBI protocols, according to Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.

When the department reviewed Arp’s bill, it voiced concerns. The sponsors then added a provision that said the department only has to comply to the extent federal law allows.

“Formal guidance from the FBI would not be available until after the bill has been enacted,” Talley wrote in an email.

DSS has concerns

County DSS offices also have concerns about the bill. The N.C. Social Services Consortium Partners recently released a statement opposing the amended bill, saying it is an unfunded mandate for the counties to pay for extensive background checks, paperwork and fingerprinting.

“Right now we’re kind of unsure how it would be implemented,” said Geoffrey Marett, director of Gates County DSS. He deferred to the consortium’s statement, which argued the current language requires all applicants to be fingerprinted and that the associated costs would fall to the counties.

A nationwide background check costs $38, according to the Department of Justice.

The record checks would then cost “millions of dollars statewide,” according to the consortium.

Arp said sponsors already amended the bill to meet county DSS concerns. Counties wouldn’t be forced to put money down unless they chose to fingerprint, which Arp said would be necessary if someone is suspected of being an out-of-state fleeing felon. The state would pay to update databases so that DSS can inform police officers when the officers request specific information about law-breaking applicants.

“I think those are kind of overblown assertions from people who may not want to fully implement these,” Arp said.

Frank: 919-829-4870
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