Mar. 27, 2006 – Civil libertarians and students filed a lawsuit last week, challenging a federal law that denies financial aid to people with drug convictions. The groups said the 2000 law punishes students twice for nonviolent offenses, disproportionately affects low-income communities and violates various constitutional amendments.
A recently changed provision of the federal Higher Education Act (HEA) disqualifies applicants convicted of state or federal drug offenses while receiving financial aid. The original measure, enacted in 2000 and partially defanged last month, also prohibited would-be students from acquiring financial aid if they were convicted of drug offenses in one or more years prior, depending on the severity of the offense.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a group called Students for Sensible Drug Policy are leading the legal battle against what remains of the HEAâ€™s drug provision, arguing on technical grounds that it violates Fifth Amendment protections against double jeopardy by penalizing someone twice for the same crime.
"Students are being punished once by the courts, then again by the education system," ACLU staff attorney Adam Wolf told Baylor Universityâ€™s daily, The Lariat.
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in South Dakota, claims to represent an estimated 200,000 people known to have been denied federal financial aid under the HEA drug provision, most of them under the previous version of the law. As of February 7, the US Department of Education had recorded 180,000 rejections, according to figures analyzed by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, a policy group aiming to have the provision repealed altogether.
Another criticism of the law, cited in the ACLUâ€™s legal papers, is its disproportionate effect on working-class students, whose access to higher education is more dependent on financial aid.
"Wealthy students, who can afford tuition, are entirely insulated from the law," the group said in a statement announcing the lawsuit, while noting that "those less well off â€“ the very people the HEA was designed to help â€“ risk losing access to education."