Drug provision for student aid a double penalty, critics say

Clinton, Bush offices accused of distorting law

March 13, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Given that she had been thrown out of the house by age 13 for declaring herself a lesbian, spent her teen-age years sleeping on subway trains and rotting piers and yet still managed to get her GED, Laura Melendez figured she had kept her nose pretty clean.

Sure, there had been a few arrests for smoking marijuana, but after an entire adolescence spent on the streets, with far more visits by the police than by her parents, what did those offenses really amount to?

"It means I'll be denied an education," said Melendez, who is from the Bronx, now 22 and applying to college.

If Melendez had been an armed robber, a rapist, even a murderer, she would not be in the same predicament. Once out of prison, she would have been entitled to government grants and loans, no questions asked.

But under a provision of federal law, tens of thousands of would-be college students have been denied financial aid because of drug offenses, even though the crimes may have been committed long ago and the sentences served out.

"It is absurd on the face of it," said Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican.

Souder, who wrote the law, says the Clinton and Bush administrations have turned it on its head, taking a penalty meant to discourage current students from experimenting with drugs and using it to punish people trying to get their lives back on track.

"I am an evangelic Christian who believes in repentance, so why would I have supported that?" he said. "Why would any of us in Congress?"

The aid prohibition has been a sore point since its enactment in 1998, inciting debate and recriminations all around. Members of Congress have accused the Clinton and Bush administrations of distorting the law's intent. The Education Department has fired back, saying Congress handed it a vague and sloppy law - one referring simply to "a student who has been convicted" of a drug offense.

Students are equally perplexed. After serving almost 10 years in prison for attempted murder, Jason Bell went straight to college on federal grants and loans. Now a senior at San Francisco State University, he helps other ex-convicts enroll in the university but often has the hardest time assisting drug offenders whose crimes were minor.

"It's a form of double jeopardy," said Bell, 32. "They do the time, but then there are still roadblocks when they finish. I don't believe people should be punished twice."

Some members of Congress say they are pushing to rewrite the law for that reason. And the president's budget includes a commitment to revise it.

Yet the changes would perpetuate what some members of Congress see as the law's contradictions. Under President Bush's language, anyone who violated drug laws before going to college could get financial aid. But those already in college when they commit a drug offense would still be stripped of aid for at least a year. The idea is to dissuade students from using drugs, especially since they are being educated with taxpayer money.

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