Some of the nation's worst sex offenders will no longer be eligible to receive generous educational financial aid packages while they are confined in treatment centers under a bill approved by Congress.
A little-noticed provision of a broader higher education bill makes such offenders ineligible for Pell Grants, the nation's premier financial aid program for low-income students, starting July 1, 2009.
Both the Senate and the House approved the bill late last week and 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 to treatment centers.
"Today, the most insane wasteful spending program in America comes to an end," Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., said on the House floor Thursday before his plan won approval.
Keller cited the AP report that some offenders were using the financial aid to buy clothes, DVD players and music CDs — sometimes after they dropped their classes.
20 states impacted
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. Keller predicted it would save taxpayers millions.
The provision affects 20 states that allow violent sex offenders to be held indefinitely after they have served their prison sentences because they are likely to re-offend.
Prison inmates are ineligible for Pell Grants under a 1994 law, but sexual predators have qualified once they are transferred from prison to treatment centers.
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 "living expenses" even though those were already paid for by the state. Others signed up for courses to receive aid and then dropped them.
"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 Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services.
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, Coastline spokeswoman Michelle Ma said.
ACLU urged reform, not cutoff
Critics say the new measure will cut off the possibility of higher education for 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 abuses rather than cutting off Pell Grants for the offenders.
However, 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.