Pubdate: Fri, 11 Apr 2008
Source: Collegiate Times (VA Tech,  Edu)
Copyright: 2008 Collegiate Times
Author: Gabriel McVey


Ten years ago, without debate or even a proper vote, Congressman Mark
Souder, an Indiana Republican and Christian fundamentalist fanatic,
slipped the Aid Elimination Penalty (also known as the Drug-Free
Student Loan Amendment) into the 1998 reauthorization of the Higher
Education Act.

As a result of this little-known provision, the Department of
Education blocks access to federal financial aid for students with
drug convictions.

Since then, this stipulation has denied roughly 200,000 applicants
financial aid because of prior drug convictions, according to Students
for Sensible Drug Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit advocacy
organization. These convictions are generally for nonviolent
possession charges and mostly for marijuana.

Before Congress enacted the penalty, judges could strip aid
eligibility from individuals at their own discretion.

Most judges saw that putting barriers to higher education in the path
of a problem youth was no disincentive to drug use and so reserved it
for the most violent and dangerous offenders as a purely punitive measure.

In 2006, Congress scaled back the penalty by eliminating its
"reach-back" provision -- thereby limiting its consequences to crimes
committed only while receiving aid.

Previously, it had been fully retroactive and therefore a good deal
more punishing, but the penalty is still both grossly unfair and
absurdly ineffective, as is the Drug War in general  . but that's a
story for a different time.

Of course, there's no really accurate way of calculating this law's
costs, because we don't know how many applicants simply don't request
aid because they refuse to embarrass themselves by trying.

Let me be clear: Murderers, rapists, thieves, frauds and arsonists are
not denied aid.

Violent felons are free to apply on their release from

Yet the eighteen-year-old kid who the courts fine $500 after the cops
bust them selling nickel bags is barred from receiving federal student

An offender can avoid the penalty by attending drug counseling. But
the students who most need financial aid often can't afford the
private drug counseling that would restore their eligibility for aid
- -- a catch-22 that unreasonably affects the poor, who are also the
most likely to use and sell illegal drugs.

The Department of Education's student aid denial constitutes a second
punishment of a student who has already served a court-imposed sentence.

It places a particular stigma on drug charges. After offenders "pay
their debt" to society, the penalty bars them from receiving student
aid ad infinitum, even for nonviolent offenses.

Congress' own investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office,
found no evidence that the Aid Elimination Penalty reduced drug use in
general or student drug use in particular.

The congressionally-created Advisory Committee on Student Financial
Assistance recommended that Congress remove the question from the
student aid application, calling it "irrelevant."

By barring the most at-risk students from federal student aid,
Congress has actually increased the likelihood that these people will
use drugs, commit crimes and fail to become productive taxpayers.

The Aid Elimination Penalty does nothing to solve our nation's drug
problems, is fiscally irresponsible -- keeping students from competing
in the workforce -- pushes students into recidivism and makes our
streets less safe, violates local control and decision-making and
usurps judges' and college administrators' authority to punish legal
and campus policy violations.

But once again, we encounter the modern American political
susceptibility to illogic in the name of truthiness.

In order to make Americans feel safe -- not actually make them safer
- -- politicians cater to voters' base instincts and castigate societal
outsiders to reinforce a social norm with no real underlying utility.
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MAP posted-by: Derek