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As the cost of attending a university, public or private, rises, more and more students depend on financial aid.  But what most of these applicants do not realize is that they could be denied financial assistance based on how they answer a single question.

Question 31 of the FAFSA form asks students whether they have been convicted of possession of a controlled substance.  Students who mark "yes" can be denied federal aid, regardless of how they answer the rest of the questions.

On March 9, more than 50 federal  legislators  introduced  the  Removing Impediments to Students' Education Act to the House to repeal the legislation that created the policy, a 1998 amendment to the 1968 Higher Education Act.  U.S.  Rep.  Mark Souder, R-Ind., who introduced the amendment,  said  he intended the rule to only apply to students who are convicted of a crime while receiving financial aid, not students who want to apply for financial aid in the future.

"It never should have been enforced that way," said Seth Becker, Souder's press secretary, in a 2003 interview.

Proponents of the current policy argue that the law serves as a deterrent  to  drug use, but this logic is asinine.  It is hard to believe that drug users will stop getting their fix because they will not get federal aid when they can simply lie on the FAFSA form.  According to the Department of Education, 46.1 percent of all U.S.  undergraduate students received some form of federal aid in the 2003-2004 school year.  It is impossible for the government officials to run background checks on all FAFSA applicants.  There are simply too many of them.

This law also fails as a deterrent because most students don't even know that the law exists.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 160,000 students have been denied aid since the amendment went into effect because they did not understand that there is a wrong answer to question 31.  And while the law allows students to regain eligibility after completing a qualified treatment program, students - who applied for federal aid because they can't afford tuition in the first place - have to pay for these expensive programs.

It is also baffling that drug offenders are singled out by this legislation.  The principle of withholding money from those who break the law is understandable, although it does appear draconian - it is a second punishment to those who were already prosecuted.  But does Congress think it is OK to subsidize child molesters and axe murderers' college education so long as the potheads have to pay their own way?

What is even more troubling, however, is the potentially negative impact of the policy on minorities.  According to a 2000 report by the Human Rights Watch, 62.6 percent of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons in 1996 were black - even though five times as many whites use drugs as black.  It also states that in Illinois, a black man is 57 times more likely to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man.

Universities and colleges in United States are seeing drops in minority enrollment already.  The statutes can only exacerbate the problem further by taking federal aid away from minorities who were penalized in the courts for the color of their skin.

Congress should move quickly to pass the RISE Act.  Not only is the 1998 amendment an unfair and unwieldy misinterpretation, but it also supersedes the authority of the professionals entrusted with deciding who the meritorious students are - the educators.  Institutions of higher education are, in the end, businesses, and they maintain product quality through careful screening of the applicants.  The clumsy and inefficient colossus of federal bureaucracy should not intrude. 

MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom


 ACLU REPORT: UNITED STATES DRUG LAWS HARM WOMEN

NEW YORK ( AP )  -------------     America's war on drugs is inflicting deep and disproportionate harm on women - most of them mothers ---- who are filling prisons in ever-rising numbers despite their typically minor roles in drug rings, the American Civil Liberties Union and two other groups contend in a major new report.

The report, "Caught in the Net," is being released Thursday as the focus of a two-day national conference in New York, bringing together criminal justice officials, sentence-reform activists and other experts to consider its package of proposed legislative and policy changes.  The report recommends expansion of treatment programs geared toward women, says incarceration should be a last resort, and urges more vigorous efforts to maintain ties between imprisoned mothers and their children.

"Drug convictions have caused the number of women behind bars to explode, leaving in the rubble displaced children and overburdened families," the document says.

The number of imprisoned women is increasing at a much faster rate than the number of men, mostly because of tougher drug laws.  There were 101,000 women in state and federal prisons in 2003, an eight-fold increase since 1980; roughly one-third were drug offenders, compared to about one-fifth of male inmates.

"Many of the drug conspiracy and accomplice laws were created to go after the kingpins," said the ACLU women's rights project director, Lenora Lapidus, a lead author of the report.  "But women who may simply be a girlfriend or wife are getting caught in the web as well, and sent to prison for very long times when all they may have done is answer the telephone."

Lapidus acknowledged that legislation addressing the situation would probably need to be gender-neutral.  But she and her fellow authors - from New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice and the advocacy group Break the Chains - make a detailed case that existing drug laws "have had specific, devastating and disparate effects on women."

Among their contentions:

- -Many women are ensnared in drug investigations despite peripheral involvement, sometimes solely because they failed to turn in their partners to police.  Sentencing laws fail to consider factors such as physical abuse or economic dependence that may draw women into drug abuse or deter them from notifying authorities of a partner's drug activity.

 -Treatment programs, to the extent they exist, often are tailored for men and prove relatively ineffective for women.

- -Black and Hispanic women are imprisoned for drug offenses at higher rates than white women even though their rates of illegal drug use are comparable.  Factors include prosecutors' decisions, policing tactics and selective testing of pregnant minority women for drug use.

- -Most imprisoned women, and relatively few imprisoned men, leave behind children for whom they were the sole primary caretaker.  The separation can be shattering for mothers, who may lose parental rights, and for children, thousands of whom are placed in foster care at state expense.

The report makes an economic case for change, contending that the combined annual cost of imprisoning a mother and placing a child in foster care is seven times the cost of an intensive one-year drug treatment program.

Several mothers jailed for drug offenses are attending the conference, including Dorothy Gaines, whose 19-year prison sentence for cocaine conspiracy was commuted by President Clinton in 2000 after she served six years.  Gaines says her son, Phillip, now 20, was devastated by the separation.

"He was an honor roll student, but when I went to prison, he just lost it," Gaines said in a telephone interview from Alabama.  "Even when I finally came home, he tried to kill himself.  He's still bearing the scars."

The issues raised in the report are difficult ones for criminal justice officials as their states debate building new prisons or diverting more nonviolent drug offenders into treatment.

"When there's a woman defendant with children, we generally try everything we can to put her into rehab rather than prison," said Michael Arcuri, district attorney in New York's Oneida County and former president of the state DA's association.

"On the other hand, we're supposed to treat everyone the same," he said.  "You see more women in prison because you see more women selling drugs.  Some of them feel that, because we were softer on women in the past, they'll get some sort of easier treatment."

Bruce Bullington, a Florida State University criminologist, said drug-offending mothers may win sympathy from some activists but often are viewed harshly by lawmakers.

"It's not just an issue of drugs, but of embedded moral values," he said.  "We demonize these women, and it comes back to haunt us in a variety of ways."
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom

Compiled And Edited:  Deborah Shrira               Updated:  March 2008

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