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UI housing drug fines a conflict of interest

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Last year, the University of Iowa collected</a> more than $140,000 in dorm fines from students charged with illegal possession of drugs and alcohol. There were 104 illicit-drug fines included in that number, which represents a 300 percent increase over the year before and is similarly large when compared with any year previous.

Trying to suppress illegal activity while also budgeting for money collected from said activities represents a significant conflict of interest. This is especially concerning when after an unprecedented increase of drug fines just two years after the fines' implementation.

The university didn't start issuing fines for drug use before 2009. Instead, it issued a much harsher penalty if found guilty.

"Typically, students were evicted from University Housing," said Greg Thompson, the manager of Residence Life.

Today, students are fined anywhere between $200 and $700 for incidents involving illicit drugs. Though it is admittedly much less harsh than an across-the-board, one-strike eviction, the UI benefits from the aforementioned $140,000, even going so far as to account for it in its 2011-12 budget. Fining students for actions it wishes to mitigate is unjustly self-serving.

A preferable alternative would be a simple two- or three-strike eviction system. It would deter students from engaging in illegal activities and give the university incentive to keep the residence halls substance-free, as the current fines do.

The difference is, neither the university nor the student would benefit from a student's arrest.

In April 2010, 12 students from Currier and Mayflower were arrested after the UI police executed 11 search warrants, nine in Currier and two in Mayflower. The reason the officers were able to obtain those warrants is uncertain. Having nine separate warrants for one building is extremely rare, which brings into question the motivation leading to the students' arrests.

Those 12 arrests and the accompanying 21 drug violations represent university revenue between $4,200 and $14,700 when multiplied by the $200 and $700 range.

In the academic year following those 11 search warrants, university drug citations increased four-fold. In 2009-2010, 26 students were fined for drug violations. This past year, that number jumped to 104, an increase of 300 percent. A good number of the drug citations were from students in the presence of drugs, Thompson said, which is a violation of Residence Hall policy.

The cause behind the dramatic increase is a mystery to him.

"I don't know what the actual cause of that was," he said. "It's something that we've tried to examine, too. It's bigger than in previous years as well."

That it increased so dramatically within two years of the fine implementations is concerning, but it could be due to a variety of other factors — the most outstanding of which is the loss of downtown bars as legal areas of recreation since the 21-ordinance was implemented. Regardless, as Thompson explained to the DI Editorial Board, that figure, that $140,000 figure, is figured into this year's budget.

"When we get the account at the beginning of the year, we don't necessarily budget for it," Thompson said. "It's based on what we bring in the previous year."

The usual causes of residence-hall discipline remain.

"One of the biggest complaints we get is from loud noise due to parties involving alcohol," Thompson said. "And a lot of times, they're disruptive through illegal behavior. 'My roommate is engaging in drug use; how does that affect me?' It can be a disruptive influence to folks who don't want to engage in that kind of thing."

As Thompson noted before, many of the 104 drug citations were for students in the presence of drugs. One would think that often includes roommates not directly involved in the inciting incident.

The evidence given suggests that those around but not engaging in the substance, who Thompson cited as the victims of drug use, are also being punished by the university.

When asked whether it would be considered a success if the actual drug and alcohol fine revenue decreased to $20,000, Thompson replied, "I think it's always a success if the fines are going down. Our goal is to eliminate those source of funds."

Not accounting for the disciplinary revenue before the year begins would be a start. Whether the university would like to admit it or not, there is an incentive to fine students for drug violations, which, in the state of Iowa, leads to student arrests and prosecutions.

Whatever the cause may be, the current policy is a conflict of interest for the university. It's time to rethink its disciplinary policies.


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