On Friday, July 22, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) rescinded his support of "The Second Chance Act" (on the last working day, before the 108th Congress adjourned for August recess), and now the bill must be put on hold until at least September.
The delay, according to Ross Wilson of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), will keep thousands of college students at risk of losing federal financial aid because of a "counterproductive and unfair" drug provision in the federal Higher Education Act.
The "Second Chance Act" mainly concerns itself with facilitating the re-entry of ex-drug offenders into communities and "recidivism prevention" through treatment programs. Its provisions also include an amendment to the HEA to prevent students with prior drug convictions from being ineligible for federal assistance.
While an improvement over the existing law, the step is insufficient because it will leave in place a fundamentally flawed policy, Wilson said, and instead his organization would like to see [members of the Senate] introduce a full repeal of the law.
Earlier this year, New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, expressed his willingness to co-sponsor a different version of the bill to members of the UNM chapter of SSDP. Bingaman's bill, H.R. 685, would have fully repealed the HEA provision if passed.
Gabrielle Guzzardo, a spokesperson for UNM's SSDP chapter, hopes Bingaman will pick up the effort when the Senate reconvenes in September, saying the senator has been very supportive of her organization's cause in the past.
The Higher Education Act (HEA), passed in 1965, enabled thousands of low and middle income students to attend college by providing them with federal grants, loans and other forms of financial assistance. Every five years or so, Congress reconsiders, amends and reauthorizes the bill, adding provisions as it sees fit. The most recent reauthorization took place in 1998 when Congress approved the addition of a provision which denied aid to students who reported a prior drug conviction on their application for federal money.
Initially, enforcement of the Drug Free Student Aid Provision was deliberately lax. Students who opted not to answer the drug conviction question during the Clinton administration still received financial aid with no automatic penalty, according to the Educators for Sensible Drug Policy website, another drug policy reform group. (The site says an estimated 280,000 applicants had their applications processed in the 2000-2001 school year.)
In 2001, however, the Bush administration vowed to cease this oversight and enforce the law's provisions to the letter. An Associated Press article from April 17, 2001, spelled out their more stringent policy: "Now, failure to answer the question will result in rejection of the application."
As a result, the 2001-2002 school year saw a record number of college students denied federal financial aid; 47,730 applicants (not counting those who did not apply at all because they assumed they would be denied) were deemed ineligible for assistance. To date, more than 150,000 applicants have been denied aid under the Drug Free provision of the HEA, according to the Department of Education.
A coalition of groups has formed to oppose the law because it is "discriminatory" and "will not solve our nation's drug problem." The HEA Drug Provision, their website (RaiseYourVoice.com) maintains, hurts low and middle income students disproportionately because they depend more on federal assistance than wealthy students, who can afford the legal defense to prevent drug convictions and pay for school without government help.
Black students are also hit harder, because they constitute more than 55 percent of drug convictions despite representing only 13 percent of drug users, according to The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy organization focused on prison reform. Absurdly, a rape or murder conviction may not disqualify a student from federal aid.
The real problem with the HEA's drug provision, according to Ross Wilson, is that it punishes students multiple times for a single crime. Since 1988, judges have had the authority to revoke a student's financial aid as part of sentencing for a drug conviction (particularly when the student is a distributor), and school administrators could follow up with expulsion for offenders. The HEA Drug Provision, however, puts a blanket prohibition over these crimes—from marijuana possession to dealing heroin.
Interestingly, Sen. Mark Souder (R-IN), the principal sponsor of the provision in 1998, now opposes it and is working on its reform.