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Arkansas ranks eighth among the states in the percentage of college applicants who are denied federal financial aid because they’ve been convicted of drug offenses. Congressman Vic Snyder, a Democrat, is a co-sponsor of legislation to end the aid penalty.
A group called Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), headquartered in Washington, said last week that 1,858 Arkansans had been denied federal college aid because of drug convictions since the penalty was enacted as part of the Higher Education Act of 2000. That’s .27 percent of federal-aid applicants. Nationwide, nearly 200,000 would-be students have been denied, a percentage of .25. Indiana had the highest percentage of denials among the states, .50.
Legislation to end the penalty was introduced in previous sessions of Congress, and Snyder was a co-sponsor then too.
“The law doesn’t apply to rapists and murderers,” Snyder said in a telephone interview. “They’re not penalized. The law only applies to drug convictions, of any severity. It could be a misdemeanor possession charge. And there’s no time limit. The offense could have occurred when the person was very young.” The law holds back would-be students from becoming productive citizens, Snyder said, adding “Arkansas doesn’t do this with state money.”
A spokesperson for the state Department of Higher Education confirmed that no state-funded programs deny aid to potential college students because of drug convictions. One program, the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship Program, does require applicants to sign a statement that “I am drug-free and will refrain from the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs (and of alcohol if I am under 21 years of age).” State law does not specifically require that applicants in this program remain drug- and alcohol-free, but the law does let the DHE set the rules for awarding state-funded scholarships.
SSDP lists a number of reasons why the federal law should be repealed, including:
• “The law punishes individuals twice for the same infraction. Affected students have already been dealt with by the criminal justice system. … This violates the ‘double jeopardy’ clause of the Fifth Amendment.”
• “Forcing students convicted of drug charges to drop out of school makes them more likely to fall into drug abuse or commit crimes … and less likely to become productive tax-paying citizens. … Congress has no rational basis to attach student aid eligibility to drug convictions, especially since murderers, rapists, burglars and arsonists can still receive financial aid. This violates the equal protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment’s ‘due process’ clause.”
• “The law hurts only students from low- and middle-income families — the very same people federal financial aid programs are intended to assist. Students from wealthier families can afford to pay for tuition without public assistance and can frequently afford the cost of a lawyer to avoid a drug conviction in the first place.”
• “Because of racial profiling and the discriminatory enforcement of drug laws, the aid ban is keeping minorities out of school at a much higher rate than the general population.”
• “The law only affects hardworking and determined students who are doing well in school, since there are already minimum [grade] requirements for receiving financial aid.”
The SSDP and the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in March challenging the constitutionality of the drug penalty.
Ending the drug penalty sounds like it would be controversial to some Arkansans — especially since Snyder is considered the most liberal member of the Arkansas congressional delegation — but Snyder said, “I don’t remember anyone being critical. … It’s not something you hear about every day.”