Bill offers leniency for drug offenders

Ryan Thompson

A group of senators from across the political spectrum introduced legislation on Feb. 11 that will make it possible for students convicted of drug-related crimes to receive financial aid.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sponsored the act and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is an original co-sponsor. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) also supports the bill. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced legislation of the same name and purpose to the House of Representatives in November.

This shows that both parties across both houses see problems with the current system and are interested in criminal justice reform. As is, the FASFA form requires that students answer a question asking if they have ever been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs. If students answer “yes” or fail to answer, they will become ineligible for financial aid.

A press release on Bass’ website for her version of the legislation reports that nearly 3,300 students lost access to financial aid because of drug charges during the 2009–2010 school year. Offenses involving alcohol or tobacco do not affect financial aid.

If passed, the Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success Act, or SUCCESS Act, will amend the section of the Higher Education Act which makes students caught with controlled substances ineligible for financial aid. It will also remove the drug question from the FASFA form.

“I think it will be great for that question to no longer be asked,” said Ryan Alexander, assistant

professor and co-chair of criminal justice and legal studies. “It would allow a group of students that were once really hamstrung from moving on with their lives [and give them] the opportunity to get an education.”

Alexander made the case that it is time to acknowledge that people make mistakes and it doesn’t help anybody to continue punishing those mistakes indefinitely. When a four-year degree is a minimum qualification for many jobs, hampering a person’s access to an education can permanently bar that person from getting one’s life back on track. He also sees the SUCCESS Act as part of the growing Ban the Box movement.

According to All of Us or None, a civil rights organization started by formerly incarcerated people, Ban the Box is an initiative seeking to help people with conviction histories get a second chance. The organization argues that because African Americans are disproportionately arrested and convicted, discriminating against people with conviction histories is a form of structural discrimination. The success of Ban the Box has led to 45 cities and counties removing questions regarding past conviction from employment applications. Ban the Box also campaigns against discrimination based on past convictions in regards to housing.

“You’re missing out on a whole pool of potentially really good employees simply because they have had an issue in their background,” Alexander said. “I see [the SUCCESS Act] as just a piece of that movement, of that evolution forward.”

The Senate read the bill twice and referred it to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, according to the Library of Congress.