David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]
If you follow the news or read our newsletter closely, you've probably noticed just how much media coverage of the Higher Education Act Drug Provision -- the law delaying or denying federal financial aid for college to students or would-be students with drug convictions -- has burgeoned in the last few months. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC are just a few of the venues discussing this new law which is being fully enforced for the first time in this coming school year's financial aid packages.
A funny thing happened when the spotlight began to shine on this issue: The law's sponsor, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), became very defensive. Almost immediately, Souder began to distance himself from the law in its current form, telling numerous media outlets that the law wasn't intended to apply to past convictions from before a student started school.
"The last thing I want to do is reach back and punish applicants with prior records. That's like saying, 'Once a criminal, always a criminal,'" Souder told the Wall Street Journal. "I feel bad about this situation. I'm an evangelical Christian and a big supporter of prison fellowship. One of the things I fundamentally believe is that people change," he said on ABC News. "As an evangelical Christian, why would I ever propose something that does not believe in redemption?," he told the New York Times.
A fine sentiment, if he means it. We don't think people's past crimes should be held over them forever, either. (We also don't think that most drug activity should be criminal, but that's a larger issue.) But did he really not mean it to apply to past convictions? Did his chief of staff really mean it when she blamed that on an overly harsh interpretation by the Clinton administration?
One can't help but be skeptical. First of all, the language of the law seems clearly to apply to any conviction irrespective of whether they happened before or after starting school. Certainly the law contains no language indicating that they shouldn't be. Souder has now had nearly three years in which to correct his "error", yet it is still on the books now for the second school year in a row. In Souder's defense, he did sponsor language a year ago in the Education and the Workforce Committee that would have limited the law's applicability to convictions after one is enrolled and receiving financial aid. But he didn't bother to shepherd it through the torturous legislative process, and the law was never modified.
There's another funny thing that happened. After Souder gave those quotes to the media, he went into hiding -- not returning calls to media, not making appointments for interviews on the issue, nothing. It's an old trick drug warriors use when they want to squash the media coverage: If they don't show up, there's a good chance the media will lose interest or won't run stories because they can't interview the leading representatives of both sides.
The strategy has had partial success. There are currently several major news outlets that have HEA stories in the works but have postponed them because Rep. Souder won't talk. One of them, CNN, finally decided to go with the story this week anyway, without him, 2 1/2 weeks after shooting the footage.
Now if one stops to think what Mr. Souder intended when introducing this law, hiding from the press doesn't make very much sense. Surely he sponsored the law because he believes the threat of losing financial aid will discourage young people from using drugs. We don't believe it will have that effect, but Mark Souder does, or says he does.
In that case, Souder should be doing everything he can to increase the publicity around the law, not reduce it. A law can only serve as a deterrent, even in theory, if people know about it. The more publicity, the more young people will know about the law -- and according to Mark Souder's way of reasoning, naive as it may be, fewer of them will use drugs. Conversely, the less publicity, the less awareness young people will have of the financial aid law, and the more they will use drugs -- again, according to Mark Souder's way of thinking, not ours.
Hence, if Souder is correct that the law deters drug use, then avoiding the press in order to reduce press coverage of the law should cause more young people to use drugs than if there were more press coverage -- a price Mark Souder is evidently willing to pay in order to avoid the discomfort of defending a law that public opinion has turned against.
As for narrowing the law to exempt convictions from an applicant's pre-college days, anything that will reduce the number of people denied educational opportunities is worth supporting. But no one should think that such a modification is good enough, as the law's supporters will doubtless argue. A bad law that applies to a smaller number of people is still a bad law. All the arguments against the HEA drug provision will still apply even if the law is narrowed: