(U-WIRE) HONOLULU – A provision to the 1998 Higher Education Act that declares students convicted of a drug-related misdemeanor or felony offense conditionally ineligible for financial aid may be short-circuiting its own purpose. One can only assume that the purpose of the provision was to a) prevent abuse of federal funds and b) provide yet another disincentive for drug use. But the provision is far too general to accomplish what it hopes to without unnecessary punitive action.
In order to assess the provision, one must ask the question: is the so-called “drug war” aimed at rehabilitating drug users and preventing future ones, or is it aimed at simply punishing offenders? While many drug war initiatives would indicate otherwise, the ideal purpose behind any drug-prevention legislation should be reforming users. How does preventing them from affording higher education aid in this regard?
If such a provision is attached to the Higher Education Act, it should provide for severity. For example, students with “intent to sell” convictions should receive stiffer punishment than those with mere possession convictions. Felonies should be considered more serious than misdemeanors. In addition, a statute of limitations should be enforced. A 25-year-old student applying for financial aid should not be severely punished for a 7-year-old conviction; such a punishment short-circuits its purpose.
Finally, a system of limitations should be imposed for how long students with drug convictions can be deprived of financial aid. To say that a student with a past drug conviction can be denied aid for an indefinite amount of time is to say that federal aid workers must make case-by-case decisions on the severity of each case. Considering that there are an estimated 68,000 students with such convictions, it’s unreasonable to expect that such decisions can be made fairly and quickly.
If we punish drug convictions by denying financial aid, there should be specific measures in place that will not force students to rely on bureaucratic decisions. For example, one count of possession could be punished with one semester’s worth of financial aid deprivation. Such decisions could be easily handed down more efficiently and fairly than case-by-case decisions.
We are not completely convinced that any provision for denying past drug offenders federal aid is completely necessary. However, if such a system is to be in place, it should be specific, lenient, and fair so as not to prevent past offenders from becoming educated, productive members of our society.
We make mistakes. How long – and in how many ways – should we allow ourselves to be punished for them?
Ka Leo O Hawaii (U. Hawaii)