MADISON, Wis. — James Sturtz is not your ordinary college student struggling to pay tuition.
The 48-year-old rapist is one of Iowa's most dangerous sex offenders, locked up in a state-run treatment center for fear he will attack again if released. Yet he has received thousands of dollars in federal aid to take college courses through the mail.
Across the nation, dozens of sexual predators have been taking 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.
Prison inmates are ineligible for Pell Grants under a 1994 law. Students convicted of certain drug offenses are also ineligible. But sexual predators qualify once they are transferred from prison to treatment centers.
"This is the most insane waste of taxpayer money that I have seen in my eight years in Congress," said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., who is pushing to stop the practice. "It is a national embarrassment that we are wasting taxpayer dollars for pedophiles and rapists to take college courses while hardworking young people from lower-class families are flipping hamburgers to pay for college."
Moreover, some institutions report that sex offenders are putting the financial aid to questionable uses by buying such things as clothes, a DVD player and music CDs — sometimes, after they have dropped out of school. Pell Grants can legally be put toward expenses that are education-related. But the unused portion of a grant is supposed to be repaid when someone withdraws from school.
Keller's plan would affect 20 states that allow authorities to hold violent sex offenders indefinitely after they have served their prison sentences. He predicted the measure would save taxpayers millions.
Some say taking away the financial aid for correspondence courses would be a mistake. They say education could help sex offenders build stable lives and reduce their chances of committing another crime if they are ever released.
Predators getting aid not tracked
The U.S. Education Department does not track how many sexual predators confined to treatment centers have received aid, in part because the offenders do not have to disclose their living arrangements on the application forms. But within the past five years, at least several dozen have received Pell Grants. And the department is only following the law.
"They are eligible," Education Department spokeswoman Stephanie Babyak said. She said the department generally does not track how recipients pay their expenses, "but if there is an issue with people getting overawards, we would look into that. We'll be happy to check it out."
The institutions and the government do not keep count of how much money sexual predators receive. The maximum Pell Grant is $4,310 per year. The government generally sends payments to colleges for tuition, and any leftover is sent to the student to cover expenses.
At the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, Wis., six patients are getting Pell Grants, and others did so in the past. Some patients used their grants for living expenses that were already being covered by the state's taxpayers, according to administrators.
"I think that the current practice — which results in large checks being sent to the patients for living expenses — is pretty much indefensible," director Steve Watters wrote in an e-mail to an aide last year.
In Iowa, 14 offenders in the Cherokee Mental Health Institute have received Pell Grants in recent years, said administrator Jason Smith. He said nine of them dropped courses after receiving money.
Some patients used their money to buy a DVD player, a television, a radio, music CDs and movies, Smith said. Because of vague guidelines, staff members could not determine whether those were inappropriate expenditures, he said.
In California, a number of predators living at the Coalinga State Hospital receive Pell Grants, said Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Nancy Kincaid. But she said the hospital has no way of tracking who gets them or how much money they receive.
Representatives of other states, including Kansas and Minnesota, said they could not recall sex offenders signing up for Pell Grants. Other states said they had no idea whether that was the case.
"They don't really tell us what they are doing. They have a lot of liberties they want to exercise without our oversight," said Dr. Henry Richards, superintendent of the Special Commitment Center in Washington state, where some patients take correspondence courses.
Keller introduced his bill to ban the practice after a newspaper reported in 2003 that 54 offenders at one Florida center got $200,000 in Pell Grants in one year.
Some Democratic members of Congress and others say it would be counterproductive to put up a barrier to education for sex offenders who are trying to rehabilitate themselves.
"These are people who we want to prepare to go into the communities. They need to have access to educational programs," Richards said. "I think the numbers of committed persons aren't so large they would significantly preclude other citizens from taking advantage of educational support. To preclude them seems mean-spirited to me."
Sturtz illustrates both sides.
The Iowa man was convicted in 1980 of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl. He earned his high school equivalency diploma behind bars and trained to be a janitor. He was convicted again in 1989 of attempted rape after pulling a knife on a woman.
After another stint behind bars, he struck again in 1994. This time, he met a Coe College student waiting for a bus, persuaded her to get in his car and raped her at knifepoint. He was sent back to prison and then ordered to Cherokee after his sentence ended in 2006.
Sturtz said he signed up to take business courses through Kirkwood Community College and received B's in business communication courses. But he has put his schooling on hold.
He said he dropped algebra and two other courses that were too hard. And he said he was unable to complete one class because he was not able to watch the required movies. Like other sexual predators, he is not allowed access to the Internet, and that has complicated his schooling.
He said he used his $100 in leftover grant money to buy jeans and underwear and saved the rest in case he tries to take more courses.
So far, none of the 72 predators in the Iowa center has been released since it opened in 1999. Sturtz admitted he is not ready for freedom anytime soon.
"It wasn't about the money for me, man. It was about the education," he said. "God knows I'm going to need all the help to get a job."
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