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Rationale: Our nation's continued reliance on increasing penalties for non-violent crimes has led to a prison building expansion so costly that it has forced states to curtail important investments in other areas. Most notably, the education of our youth has been significantly cut, in order to pay for prison building and incarcerating citizens. The figure shown at right graphically illustrates the dramatic changes in spending that have taken place at the state level from 1987 to 1995, showing that the United States has chosen to build prisons by cutting investments in education at all levels.

Recommendation 1: State governments should not spend more on prisons than on education.

Figure 19
Figure 19 Source: National Association of State Budget Offices. (April 1996). 1995 State Expenditures Report. Washington, DC.

Our national investment in prisons has placed a great obstacle on our ability to educate our children. Throughout the 1990's, college tuition continues to rise faster than inflation.89 States continue to favor investments in prisons over colleges.90 From 1982 to 1993, employment of instructors at public colleges has risen 28.5%, while the number of correctional officers has increased by 129.33%.91 Today, 50% of federal drug trafficking prisoners have not even graduated from high school, and only 3% have graduated from college.92 It is becoming increasingly clear that poorly educated and un-employable citizens are those who fill the prison beds.93 

Recommendation 2: Eliminate the ban on student loan guarantees to persons with a drug conviction.

In one of the most egregious and counter-productive moves yet, Congress wrote a law into the Higher Education Act of 1998 that denies student loan eligibility to those students who have been convicted of a drug offense. Even a first-time charge of simple possession of marijuana is enough to trigger a penalty. Penalties range from losing loans for a single year to a complete lifetime ban of federally guaranteed student loans for a person with 3 or more drug possession convictions. Considering the crucial role that education plays in the well being of our society, it is hard to understand how denying a college education to someone because of a past drug offense serves either the purpose of rehabilitation or producing well adjusted young adults. No other class of offender, including those convicted of rape or other violent offenses, faces similar restrictions on student loan eligibility.

According to the National Council of Higher Education, student loans continue to be the largest source of student aid, with approximately $29 billion for the 1995-96 federal fiscal year provided to students to meet their post-secondary educational costs. The lion's share of this funding is devoted to low and middle income students.

Recent government statistics show that while African-Americans comprise only 13% of the nation's illicit drug users, they make up almost 37% of those arrested for drug violations, over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations, and almost 60% of those in state prisons for drug felonies.94 The fact that minority groups are convicted for drug offenses at a much higher rate than whites, suggests that they will lose a disproportionate share of the student loans as well. This is especially troublesome at a time when affirmative action is being rolled back in many states.

Considering the fact that 54% of high school seniors admit to having used illicit drugs,95 over time this law could have serious ramifications for the next generation of college seekers and the nation as whole. Denying a young person, or any person, the opportunity to get an education is irrational and should not be a part of our nation's drug control strategy.

89 Ambrosio, Tara-Jen and Vincent Schiraldi. (1997 February). From Classrooms to Cellblocks: A National Perspective. Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute.
90 Ibid.
91 Ibid.
92 U.S. Sentencing Commission. (1998). 1997 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics. p. 18.
93 Ibid.
94 NIDA. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1997. (1998). SAHMSA, p. 19; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1996, Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office (1997), p. 382, Table 4.10, and p. 533, Table 6.36; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 1996, Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office (1997), p. 10, Table 13.
95 Institute for Social Research. (1998). The Monitoring the Future Survey. University of Michigan, grant money from NIDA.

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