1. Archive

Fasano hopes drug testing plan sends message

State Rep. Mike Fasano thinks his plan to encourage random drug testing for youthful offenders will send a message to delinquents and the juvenile justice workers who supervise them.

But State Rep. Debra Prewitt, who voted for a watered-down version of the bill, thinks the law will at best have a negligible effect. She also fears Fasano's original idea, which he plans to introduce again next year, raises serious constitutional questions.

Fasano tried to add random drug testing to the list of consequences for teenagers who admit to curfew violations and other offenses.

In its final form, the law would encourage, not require, juvenile justice workers to suggest random drug testing for certain delinquent children. Caseworkers have the ability to make such recommendations now.

Judges still would have the final say on whether a child would be subject to random testing.

"We're not trying to micromanage, but we want to be more aggressive in requesting random drug testing for delinquents," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "It isn't being done as often as it should be, and that was a concern."

The law would apply only to children who are under the supervision of the Department of Juvenile Justice, not children who admit to non-criminal offenses such as curfew violations or smoking on campus.

When he submits the measure next year, Fasano said he hopes to win approval for mandatory drug testing for all teens on community control, which is a form of probation.

Prewitt, who sits on the House juvenile justice committee, said the law that passed this session will have a "negligible effect, if any."

"It's comfort language," she said. "If it makes people feel better, okay, but if it's not broke, why go through the motions?"

After other lawmakers objected, both to the cost of the original plan and the possible infringement on children's civil rights, changes were made, and Fasano's bill passed unanimously in the House last month and the Senate on April 16.

Gov. Lawton Chiles is expected to allow the bill to become law without his signature.

Aside from the cost of the proposal _ more than $12-million a year _ mandatory drug testing of delinquent children is questionable, Prewitt said.

"Everyone was concerned about the civil liberties issue," said Prewitt, D-New Port Richey. "If this happened to one of our kids, we'd be the first to protest. There's an assumption of guilt. Give me that candy bar and, by the way, pee in this cup."

Fasano, who began working on the measure last summer at the request of a Pasco Middle School counselor, acknowledges that the law does not change how drug tests of juveniles are to be handled.

Fasano wants the state to begin collecting statistics on the number of juvenile offenders who are found to be using drugs.

The numbers would be used to pitch even tougher drug-testing legislation next year.

Fasano also hopes to find money in the state budget to pay for the testing.

Juvenile justice officials initially objected to Fasano's proposal because of the cost of administering hundreds or thousands of drug tests each year.

The idea worries Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who said such measures slowly erode the right to privacy.

"I'm glad and somewhat surprised the Legislature didn't move the scrimmage line further down the field toward erosion of Floridians' rights," he said. "The statute doesn't alter the status quo, but the status quo still allows a judge to impose random drug testing without probable cause."

Fasano said he realizes the idea will face opposition and did not expect the bill to pass in its original form.

"You go a little to the extreme, knowing it won't pass," he said. "Some eyebrows were raised. Now we can come back next year."

Vonnie Tornow, the Pasco Middle School counselor who first proposed the idea to Fasano, said she was pleased with the bill's progress.

Tornow said she is often frustrated when she knows a student is abusing drugs or alcohol but is told by juvenile justice workers that the child cannot be tested without parental permission or a court order.

She thinks drug testing should be mandatory for all juveniles who have been sentenced for a crime.

"When I first walked in with this idea, I thought I was just whistling in the dark," she said. "I believe this is a step in the right direction. I've seen the damaged kids. If we can show they're using, then maybe we can get them treatment."