By federal law, tens of thousands of would-be college students have been denied financial aid because of drug offenses, even if the crimes were have been committed long ago and the sentences served. Armed robbers or burglars face no similar obstacle. “It is absurd on the face of it,” said Representative Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, reports the New York Times. Souder, who wrote the law, says the Clinton and Bush administrations have taken a measure meant to discourage current students from experimenting with drugs and used 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 Education Department says Congress handed it a vague and sloppy law in 1998 – one referring simply to “a student who has been convicted” of a drug offense. Students are perplexed. After serving almost 10 years in prison for attempted murder, Jason Bell went to college on federal grants and loans. Now a senior at San Francisco State University, he helps other ex-convicts enroll but has a hard time with drug offenders whose crimes were a lot less serious than his.
Some members of Congress say they are pushing to rewrite the law. President Bush’s budget includes a commitment to narrow its scope: Anyone who violated drug laws before going to college could get financial aid, regardless of the offense. Those already in college when they commit a drug offense, however small, would still be stripped of aid, for at least a year. Critics say that the law still would impose stiffer penalties on drug use than on any other crime.