Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Nation on Scooter Libby and nonviolent drug offenders

Katha Pollitt has an great, punchy column in the latest issue of The Nation. She uses President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence as an opportunity to talk about the punishments that hundreds of thousands of Americans undergo every year after they are arrested for possession of marijuana or other drugs.

Writing to President Bush, Pollitt highlights the loss of student aid for college as a particularly devastating drug penalty:

But perhaps you are looking for one big compassionate gesture that would help a lot of people all at once and not require asking your friends and relatives embarrassing questions. With one stroke of your pen, you could pardon 200,000 young people. These are the youths who have fallen afoul of the drug provision of the 1998 Higher Education Act, which bars federal student aid to anyone convicted of a state or federal drug offense. That includes everything from government scholarships to work-study jobs. Unlike Libby, a middle-aged high-powered lawyer of considerable worldliness and wealth, these are just teenagers, who are famous for being idiots, and they violated laws that are broken every day by millions of normal, upstanding, productive citizens, including many Republicans. I don't think that can be said of lying to the FBI. Most people, even most Republicans, take that one pretty seriously. Also unlike Libby, these offenders have already paid their debt to society. Now they are dropping out of college, or not going--unless, of course, their parents can afford to pay full freight. Talk about unintended consequences--a law meant to warn kids away from drugs ends up keeping them out of college, but only if they're poor. You always say no child should be left behind. Pardon them, and people might begin to believe you actually mean it.

It's true. Students who rely on financial aid to pay for school are often forced to drop out immediately after being convicted of a drug offense, while the well-to-do often 1) can afford a good lawyer to avoid a conviction in the first place or 2) know someone who can commute their sentence.

If you think it's best that students with drug convictions stay in school and on the path to success - regardless of how you feel about Messrs. Bush and Libby - you can easily send a letter to your legislators asking them to overturn the aid elimination penalty.