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December 10, 2004 - The Daily Free Press (MA Edu)

Rep. Helps Student Drug Convicts

By Stephanie Sheen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) joined members of several nonprofit organizations Thursday at the Omni Parker Hotel to discuss a federal provision that denies college students convicted of drug-related offenses federal financial aid.

In 1998, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Indiana) introduced legislation adding the drug-related crime provision to the Higher Education Act, which prevents students convicted of drug-related crimes from receiving federal funds such as loans, grants and even work-study programs.

Frank has led a national effort to repeal the legislation, which has denied over 157,000 students federal financial aid.

Those opposing the legislation said the provision has a negative impact on the education process.

"We'd like to see it repealed in its entirely. It's counterproductive. We need to make it easier, not more difficult to go to school," said Scarlett Swerdlow, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "The purported aim of it was to decrease drug use on college campuses by giving students a reason to say 'no.' There's no evidence that the provision has done this."

The law currently penalizes any college applicant who has been convicted of a drug-related crime, regardless of when it occurred, meaning prospective students could be penalized for something they did years before.

"Effectively, these people are being punished a second time on a crime for which they've already been punished by the criminal justice system," said David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network.

The law affects minority and low-income individuals disproportionately, critics said, because they are most likely to be those targeted and convicted for drug crimes. Swerdlow said the legislation targets those the Higher Education Act was meant to protect.

"The provision only affects those people who need financial aid, not the children of the wealthy but those of modest means who rely on government assistance to go to school," she said.

Yet, federal financial aid remains available to those convicted of other crimes.

"It's the government's job to help people, not hurt people. It's ridiculous that a murderer can get federal funding to go to school but someone who did pot can't," said Yakov Kronrad, a former graduate student who was convicted of a drug-related offense and denied federal aid.

Souder is currently seeking to reform the legislation to penalize only those drug offenses occurring while on financial aid, a move President George W. Bush has openly supported.

But Souder's changes are a temporary solution to a law that is inherently wrong, activists said.

"It's a 10 percent solution to a law that's 100 percent flawed," Swerdlow said.

The Drug Reform Coordination Network and the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts have created a scholarship fund for individuals affected by the provision. The John W. Perry Fund distributes awards of up to $2,000 to be used either for educational expenses or to attend a drug treatment program, to restore eligibility for federal aid. Their goal is to raise $100,000 through a number of nationwide fundraising events.

"What we're doing here is important to those young people whose life would be changed, but there's another step in this assault," Frank said. "We could change it all. It could lead to greater things."

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