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2008 September 1 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Congress Cuts Off College Aid for Sex Offenders

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Some of the nation’s worst sex offenders will no longer receive generous financial aid packages while they are confined in treatment centers under a bill approved by Congress.

A little-noticed provision in the Higher Education Act reauthorization approved by the House and Senate makes those offenders ineligible for Pell Grants starting July 1, 2009. President Bush is expected to sign it into law..

The Associated Press reported in March that dozens of rapists and child molesters have taken higher education classes at taxpayer expense while confined by the courts to treatment centers. Critics say they are exploiting a loophole to receive Pell Grants, the nation’s premier financial aid program for low-income students.

“Today, the most insane wasteful spending program in America comes to an end,” Rep. Ric Keller, a Florida Republican, said on the House floor before his plan won approval.

Keller cited the AP report that some of the offenders were putting the financial aid to questionable use by buying clothes, DVD players and music CDS — sometimes after they dropped their classes.

The provision will affect 20 states that allow authorities to hold violent sex offenders indefinitely after they have served their prison sentences because they are likely to re-offend. Keller predicted the measure would save taxpayers millions.

Prison inmates are ineligible for Pell Grants under a 1994 law, as are students convicted of certain drug offenses. But, until now, sexual predators have qualified once they are transferred from prison to treatment centers.

Critics say the plan will cut off the possibility of higher education to offenders who are trying to rehabilitate themselves. The lack of education could hurt their chances of succeeding if they are ever released, they say, although few of them have been.

Michael Macleod-Ball, chief legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Congress should have tightened the administration of the program to stop any abuse rather than cutting off Pell Grants for the offenders.

But Larry Zaglaniczny, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the misuse by sex offenders undermined public support for the program.

“When anything brings discredit on the student aid programs, that disgrace needs to be avoided,” he said. “In this case, it’s been corrected and these practices won’t occur again.”

Jason Smith, administrator of the Civil Commitment Unit for Sex Offenders in Cherokee, Iowa, said offenders there stopped applying for Pell Grants after the recent publicity.

Thirteen offenders received grants at the Iowa facility in the past three years and nine of them dropped at least one course after receiving their money. Patients used their money to buy a DVD player, a television, a radio, music CDs and movies. Administrators could not stop such purchases because of unclear guidelines for Pell Grant use, Smith said.

On the other hand, he said some patients used the grants to help earn degrees.

“It would have definitely been a benefit for some of our patients to have the Pell Grants, but again there are those individuals who abuse it,’’ he said. “It’s difficult to monitor. Now this makes it pretty clear.’’

In California, 125 patients at Coalinga State Hospital are receiving Pell Grants to take correspondence courses through Coastline Community College. The school doesn’t know how many of the grant recipients are committed sex offenders, who take up two-thirds of the mental hospital’s 1,500 beds, Coastline spokeswoman Michelle Ma said.

“We’re certainly watching to see what impact this is going to have,’’ she said. “We don’t know if this is going to hurt our enrollment.’’

U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Stephanie Babyak said she did not know how many such offenders have received Pell Grants and how much the provision would save taxpayers.

In Wisconsin, some sex offenders at Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center pocketed as much as $1,000 in leftover Pell Grant money to help with their “living expenses’’ even though those were already paid for by the state. Others signed up for courses to receive aid and then dropped them.

Sand Ridge administrators last year started monitoring bank accounts to ensure aid was used only for educational purposes. The state’s financial aid agency also formed a committee to make a policy ensuring aid packages did not exceed their needs.

“We will comply with any changes in federal law and we will be able to implement these changes easily,’’ said Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Family Services.

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