September 26, 2008

The New York Civil Liberties Union today issued a statement regarding New York City Council Resolution 858 that calls on Congress to repeal a federal law barring students with a drug conviction from receiving federal financial aid for college.

The following statement can be attributed to NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman:

The Higher Education Act, adopted in 1965, was intended to make college education a reality for low-income students. The law provided federal student aid to working-class and economically disadvantaged students.

But Congress slipped a toxic amendment – the Aid Elimination Penalty – into 1998 legislation reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. The amendment required anyone who applied for federal student aid to reveal a past drug conviction. The amended law also disqualified a student convicted of any drug offense – even possession of a marijuana joint – from eligibility for federal financial aid. Congress approved the Aid Elimination Penalty without debate or a recorded vote; it was signed into law by President Clinton.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that between 2000 and 2005 almost 9,000 New Yorkers have been denied financial aid needed to pursue higher education because of the Aid Elimination Penalty.

A law that was originally intended to open doors to higher education now provides that the doors will slam shut for reasons that have nothing to do with a student’s capability, qualifications or desire to learn.

To make matters worse, there are gross racial and ethnic disparities in the rates of arrest, conviction and incarceration for drug offenses -- even though whites use and sell drugs at the same rates as persons of other races. As a consequence the harsh and irrational penalty required by the Aid Elimination Penalty is levied disproportionately on Blacks and Latinos. To cite just one example, despite U.S. government studies showing that white high school seniors use marijuana at higher rates than their black or Latino counterparts, over 80 percent of all those arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges in New York City during the past decade were black or Latino.

Education is a wise investment for America — one that pays dividends by promoting self-sufficiency, enhanced earning power and a higher standard of living. Furthermore, continuing education has proved to be one of the most effective ways to keep young people out of trouble with drugs. If we are truly committed to protecting the health and well-being of students, we should do everything in our power to keep them in the classroom. With college tuitions rising faster than inflation and the number of well-paying jobs shrinking, it is senseless to disempower aspiring students already at risk of being shunted to society’s margins.

The House and Senate are both currently considering legislation to repeal the Aid Elimination Penalty. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation that would repeal the Aid Elimination Penalty. Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate that would allow judges to determine (as provided in the original law) if and when denial of financial aid would be an appropriate punishment for a drug offense. HEA reauthorization is currently working its way through Congress and a final deal could be worked out any week now. However, considering the legislators tendency to capitulate to the often misguided politics of drug policy, it is essential that the City Council lend its voice to the hundreds of local legislative bodies, organizations, and professional associations that have called on Congress to repeal the Aid Elimination Penalty.