ACLU Expresses its Disappointment in Congress for Failing to Eliminate Aid Penalty in HEA Reauthorization

July 31, 2008 12:00 am

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, July 31, 2008

WASHINGTON, DC — Today, the American Civil Liberties Union expressed its disappointment in Congress for failing to repeal the aid elimination penalty in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The aid elimination penalty bars students with drug convictions – often minor, first time and misdemeanor offenses – from receiving critical college aid.

“It has now been ten years since Congress first passed the aid elimination penalty into law, and in that decade, more than 200,000 would-be students have seen the doors of educational opportunity slammed shut,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Access to education and the opportunity to better oneself should not be wielded as a weapon in the war on drugs.”

Fredrickson added, “Congress should have given greater consideration to how many would-be students, particularly those from lower income families, will fail to overcome this particularly harsh penalty for relatively minor, isolated transgressions. How many will be forced to drop out of school due to a lack of financial resources? How many could have flourished if only we had the wisdom to provide them with the same access to college aid offered to other students.”

The ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project represented Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), its more than 100 chapters nationwide and three individual students in a legal challenge to the aid elimination penalty contained in the HEA (SSDP, et. al. v. Spellings). The plaintiffs sought an injunction to prevent the enforcement of the law on the grounds that it violates the double jeopardy clause and the equal protection component of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On April 29, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court decision rejecting these legal challenges.

“In the aftermath of the court’s failure to remedy this misguided and unconstitutional policy, congressional action was the last remaining hope for students impacted by the penalty,” said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “The failure to address this fundamentally ineffective and unfair penalty will mean that many more students will see the doors of educational opportunity and the promise of a better life closed to them.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, high school graduates not enrolled in college are three times more likely than those in school to have used methamphetamine or heroin in the past year. Denying educational opportunities to those with drug convictions simply makes them more susceptible to drug abuse, addiction and repeat offenses.

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