Drug convictions mean many aren’t eligible for debt forgiveness

Hundreds of thousands of people convicted of drug-related offenses lost their eligibility for federal education assistance — and with it, Biden’s $10,000 forgiveness plan.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hopes his proposal to waive federal student loans will narrow the nation’s racial wealth gap. But a generation of Black and Hispanic Americans has been disproportionately excluded from one of the keys to Biden’s plan: the Pell grant program.

As part of the “War on Drugs” — a rigorous crime-fighting legislation that Biden championed as a U.S. Senator — it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of convicted drug offenders have had their access to federal financial assistance delayed or denied, including Pell Grants and student loans. If they wanted to go to college after their incarceration, these offenders had to take out larger, often predatory, private student loans.

Some have been deterred from applying for federal aid because they are required to disclose their drug records when applying for financial aid, while others have delayed or dropped out of college altogether.

The people most harmed by these policies: Black and Latino men, thanks to drug laws in the 1990s with harsh penalties for crack cocaine and marijuana offenses. Incarceration rates for black men skyrocketed. The guidelines remained in effect for 25 years until Congress lifted the ban on Pell Grant in 2020.

America’s student-loan debt burden, now exceeding $1.6 trillion, “is particularly heavy on black and Hispanic borrowers who, on average, have fewer family wealth to pay for it,” Biden said last week while announcing the forgiveness plan.

The administration has offered to forgive up to $10,000 in student debt for those making less than $125,000 in annual income or less than $250,000 for families. And his offer doubles debt relief to $20,000 for borrowers who also received Pell Grants, a federal program that gives the neediest students aid they don’t have to repay.

Studies show that Pell Grants — one of the most effective financial assistance programs in the country — routinely helps more than half of black students and almost half of Hispanic students afford college. According to the White House, more than 60% of the 43 million borrowers eligible for debt relief under Biden’s plan are recipients of Pell Grants.

The White House said in a statement to The Associated Press that the student debt relief plan will eliminate about half the average debt of Black and Hispanic borrowers, not counting the additional $10,000 cancellation for Pell Grant recipients.

Amid debate over whether Biden’s forgiveness plan for disproportionately indebted communities goes far enough, proponents of criminal justice reform say the president’s solutions to the student debt crisis must be as comprehensive as anti-drug laws.

“I think this administration and this president have a special duty to be a part of solving problems that he was very deeply involved in,” said Melissa Moore, director of civil system reform at the Drug Policy Alliance.

There is a generation of ex-drug offenders who took out loans to pay for school but have no Pell grants or federal loans and will not have their student debt forgiven. According to a report by the Student Borrower Protection Center on personal loan debt, black students are four times more likely to have trouble paying off personal loans than white students.

“For people who should have ticked that box before, there should be a mechanism whereby if you’ve been disfellowshipped in the past, you’re now prioritized for relief,” Moore said.

An AP review of federal and state incarceration data last year showed that the U.S. prison population skyrocketed from 240,593 to 1.43 million Americans between 1975 and 2019 as a result of the war on drugs President Richard Nixon declared in 1971. About 1 in 5 people were jailed for a drug offense listed as the most serious crime.

Nixon’s Democratic and Republican successors in the presidency would continue to use drug war policies and respond to an alarming national rise in violent crime related to the illicit drug trade, cementing the drug war’s legacy.

After the enactment of tougher state and federal penalties for crack cocaine and other drugs, incarceration rates for blacks and Hispanics tripled between 1970 and 2000. In comparison, the incarceration rate for whites only doubled over the same time span.

Biden’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 introduced the ban on Pell Grants and other federal financial assistance to persons incarcerated in federal or state prisons. However then-Sen. Biden reportedly opposed the amendment that added the ban to his bill. His spokesman said at the time Biden believed educational programs could break the cycle of recidivism among formerly incarcerated individuals.

Ultimately, Biden worked passionately to get the crime bill he sponsored passed. Academic programs in federal and state prisons, which had been robust, plummeted nationwide.

Later, in 1998, Congress expanded the ban to bar any student with a state or federal drug conviction from receiving Pell Grants and federal student loans for as little as a year or indefinitely, depending on the number of convictions. Biden voted in favor of the measure, although his opinion on the pell grant clause was unclear.

In just five years after the expanded ban went into effect, the measure cost more than 140,000 prospective college students between $41 and $54 million a year in Pell Grants and between $100 and $164 million a year in state student loans, according to the estimate Federal Audit Office.

However, in 2006, Congress changed the ban on grants to drug offenders. It only applied to students whose convictions occurred while they were on federal student aid, severely limiting its impact, although experts say the law still forced hundreds of enrolled students to drop out of college when they lost their aid. The ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals was lifted entirely when Congress passed the Omnibus Spending and COVID-19 Relief Acts in December 2020.

Substance abuse convictions no longer affect a student’s eligibility for financial aid, although the question still appears on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In April, the US Department of Education expanded its Second Chance Pell program, which provides scholarships to incarcerated students to help them enroll in academic programs. Another extension of Pell Grants to incarcerated students will begin in July 2023, according to the Department of Education.

For DeAnna Hoskins, the drug war legacy almost cost her much-needed Pell Grants and student loans. She attended college after her incarceration and coincidentally shortly after Congress lifted the ban on helping people with drug convictions.

“The 1994 crime statute was so sweeping in its destruction that it did it,” said Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform group. She asks how Biden’s debt relief plan was worked out, bringing Liberation back to us.

There are tens of thousands of people who have had to take out high-interest private student loans because of the Pell Grants ban, Hoskins added.

“That’s why it’s so important that when decisions like this are made, the voices of people with lived experiences are present,” she said. “We can help you get the equity you want.”

Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed.

https://www.king5.com/article/news/nation-world/student-loan-relief-war-on-drugs/507-1e7fa0ef-4cfd-456d-8a14-8d0694bbb4be Drug convictions mean many aren’t eligible for debt forgiveness

Alley Einstein

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