Saturday, March 13, 2004's america
Double Jeopardy

The New York Times has an interesting article on the Higher Education Act, [Tiresome free registration required]. Thanks to the efforts of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and other reform organizations working for our cause inside the beltway, HEA has become a volatile election year issue.

The endlessly irritating Mark Souder (R-IN), author of this idiotic legislation that has been used to punish young people twice, for even the most minor drug possession charges for the last six years, is blaming everyone but himself for the provision's miserable failure. He alleges its intent has been misinterpreted by both the Clinton and Bush administrations while he declares himself completely innocent of malevolent intent.

"It is absurd on the face of it," he said. "I am an evangelic Christian who believes in repentance, so why would I have supported that? Why would any of us in Congress?"

It begs the question, why the hell did he write it in the first place and why didn't he speak up sooner when it's application resulted in murderers and rapists receiving aid on the completion of their sentences, while economically disadvantaged students convicted of minor drug offenses were prevented from pursing their education. I mean really, did he just notice the illogic in using a punishment of this sort to address drug abuse?

Congress is currently working on revising the bill however, there is no way to fairly apply it. Students would continue to be punished for drug infractions while other offenses remain virtually penalty free. Congress should be working to eliminate this ill-conceived legislation entirely.

At least one reasonable Congressman agrees.

"We should abolish the whole rule," said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. "Not that we should encourage drug use, but you shouldn't single that out as being worse than rape or arson or armed robbery."

The law does allow students to "win back" their financial aid by attending drug treatment programs, however the costs are prohibitive. As HEA victim Marisa Garcia, who lost thousands of dollars of college aid when she received a ticket for having a small marijuana pipe in her car just prior to entering her freshman year remarks -- "If I couldn't afford to pay for school, then how was I supposed to pay for these programs?"

Meanwhile Souder attempts to weasel out of his responsibility for this fiasco by encouraging students to litigate.

Given the way the law has been applied, Mr. Souder says, students who have been denied aid because of offenses committed before they were in college should consider suing the government.

"I know as a conservative I'm not supposed to say this, but there are lawsuits to be had here," he said.

Does he think this to be a practical solution? These kids commit these minor infractions as teenagers. Litigation, in the absence of precedent, would stretch over years. It would be simpler to wait out the year long penalty period and reapply than it would be to sue. Besides with the Bush administration's record of passing legislation abridging the citizen's right to bring suit, (the infant vaccine litigation bill that nullified even pending suits, springing immediately to mind), it's a bad gamble on their future.

Marisa would have been probably 18 years old at the time of her arrest, having just graduated high school. It was her last summer to enjoy just being a kid. Are any one of us so chaste that we didn't experiment with some mind altering substance, be it drugs, alcohol or tobacco at that time of our life? What would have happened to us had the legislatures taken a zero tolerance stance then?

Every kid deserves a chance to make mistakes and they also deserve an opportunity to learn from them. Denying them an education will not teach them to be responsible citizens.


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