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Across the U.S. random drug testing is required for many people charged with or convicted of crimes dealing with alcohol or drugs. But a joint NewsHour and AL.com investigation found that one state system, Alabama's, can trap people with high fees, difficult scheduling and unreliable tests. AL.com investigative reporter Ashley Remkus, and journalist Elizabeth Flock, join John Yang to discuss.
Now a look at the pitfalls of drug testing in Alabama.
John Yang reports for our series Searching For Justice.
Judy, across the country, random drug testing is required for many people convicted or charged with crimes involving drugs or alcohol.
But a "NewsHour"/AL.com investigation found that one state's system, Alabama's, can trap people with high fees, difficult scheduling and unreliable tests.
AL.com investigative reporter Ashley Remkus and independent journalist and former "NewsHour" producer Elizabeth Flock reported the story, and they join us now.
Elizabeth and Ashley, welcome to you both.
Ashley, I'd like to start with you.
How does this system work? It's called the Color Code. Why does it have that name and how does it work?
And Color Code, essentially the way it works is that someone who is required to do this court-ordered drug testing would be assigned a color. Now, that color could be teal, it could be watermelon, it could be brown or orange. There's a variety of different colors that are used. And those colors are assigned based on how often someone will be tested.
Now, when their color is called — so, when it's chosen — on those days, they have to report for a mandatory drug test.
And where they have to go may not be close by?
Yes, you're definitely right. I mean, we have had reports of people walking for hours sometimes to make it to their drug tests.
And, as a matter of fact, Liz, you told the story about Frank Cobb, one of the participants in this program, who had to go a large distance to his testing.
Yes, these court-ordered drug tests don't always work with clients to make it the easiest.
Frank Cobb is one man we interviewed in Northeast Alabama. His drug tests were about 25 miles away from where he worked. And, as a reminder, these are calling folks at random. A lot of employers aren't too happy when you get called out of work at odd times, without warning.
Frank didn't have a car and actually couldn't save up to buy one, he said, in part because of the high cost of his drug tests, which were $40 each time he tested, sometimes multiple times a week, plus a monitoring fee, adding up to more than $100 or several hundred dollars a month.
He couldn't save up to a car to get a car, so he sometimes walked to his drug test 25 miles away, hitchhiking until someone finally gave him a ride the remainder of the way. And he told us as well about getting fired from one job as a welder because he missed — he got to work late in order to attend an early morning drug test.
So it really sets up people to be in this catch-22 situation where they need a job in order to pay for these tests, but then, once they get a job, they find it difficult to attend the drug tests.
Ashley, when you talk to the officials who run this program, why do they say they have set it up this way? Why do they say they have this? You have to pay for your own tests, and, at the same time, they make it sometimes hard to keep a job, so you can pay for your own tests?
Well, actually, one of the issues here in the state is that there's not one central agency that actually runs Color Code testing. It's generally handled on the local level from county to county.
There are different rules. There is one state agency that generally oversees some of the offices that run Color Code, but nobody's really setting state standards for how Color Code is carried out and how people are charged for that.
And, Ashley, given that there's no sort of uniform one overseeing body to this, do the fees vary from county to county?
Yes, they do.
We heard reports of tests ranging from, in one instance, depending on the program you were in, in Birmingham, you may not be charged for a test, or you may pay as little as $10, whereas, in other counties, for just the basic urine tests, we were hearing reports the tests were up to $60.
Liz, what does this tell us about how the — sort of the challenges that confront people as they come out of incarceration?
Yes, I think a big question on many criminal justice reform advocates' minds right now is how we can prevent recidivism and help people when they're coming out of jail or prison to not go back.
One thing that I think we found here is that this program was intended to be a positive diversion program. It was really started, Color Coded drug testing, to keep people out of jail in prisons which were overcrowded in Alabama. So the intentions were good.
But what we have landed on now, according to participants, is something that really isn't realistic for a lot of people in terms of affording these tests, really getting back on their feet, keeping a job, doing what they need to do in order to stay sober, stay clean.
And if that's the case, then are we doing more harm than good with this so-called diversion program? And a lot of the numbers that we got as well about how many people are graduating from this program suggest that a lot of people aren't necessarily graduating out of the drug testing program.
Frank Cobb has been in and out of jail and prison five times since he's been on the program. So, is this really keeping people out, and what needs to change?
The story is posted on PBS.org/NewsHour and on AL.com.
Ashley Remkus of AL.com and Elizabeth Flock, thank you very much.
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