Pell Grant Money to Sex Offenders?

As reported by the Associated Press Monday, sex offenders being held in treatment facilities are receiving Pell Grant money for college courses through a 1994 loophole.

And many of them are abusing the privilege.

The story explained that while Pell Grant money cannot go to prison inmates, once a sex offender gets out of jail the money becomes available to them – even if they are confined to a treatment center by a judge.

And according to the article, some of the offenders are dropping classes and then using the money to buy clothes and CDs. The piece even names one facility – the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, Wis. – where offenders were using the funds toward “living expenses” – which are already being paid by taxpayers.

In the facility’s defense, the director Steve Watters called the practice “indefensible,” according to Monday’s article.

Much better than the reaction of Dr. Henry Richards, superintendent of the Special Commitment Center in Washington state, who defended his institution’s practice of allowing offenders to use the money. What’s more, he referred to those who want to “preclude them” as “mean-spirited.”

Watters referred phone calls to a media contact, who never answered the phone. Similarly, Jason Smith of Iowa’s Cherokee Mental Health Institute said he was too busy to take calls.

Rep. Ric Keller, who is a member of the Pell Grant Caucus, authored a proposal to close the loophole (that has passed the House and is currently in the Senate) after finding out about the problem from a 2003 article in the St. Petersburg Times. Keller is quoted in the AP article:

“This is the most insane waste of taxpayer money that I have seen in my eight years in Congress … 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.”

And Bryan Malenius, a spokesman for Rep. Keller, stated the taxpayers’ problem succinctly: “There’s a finite amount of money to go around. The program’s very limited … if we can’t afford to give Pell grants to graduate students, we sure can’t afford to give them to sex offenders.”

The problem begins in 1994, when treatment centers for the sexually violent didn’t really exist as they do now. According to the FSA handbook, under the 1994 law:

“Students incarcerated in federal and state penal institutions aren’t eligible for Pell grants. However, students incarcerated in local penal institutions can still receive Pell Grants. Students incarcerated by jurisdictions defined as a state in the law (such as the District of
Columbia) are considered to be incarcerated in a state penal institution and aren’t eligible for Pell Grants. A student isn’t considered incarcerated if he or she is in a halfway house or home detention, or sentenced to serve only on weekends.

The costs of attendance for incarcerated students are limited to tuition and fees and those books and supplies specifically related to the student’s course of study.” (FSA handbook, Chapter 1: Student Eligibility, p. 5).

No specific provision is made for sexual offenders confined indefinitely to treatment centers by judges who believe that they will strike again if they are released into the public.

In a 2003 article detailing the issue in Florida – the article that first alerted Rep. Keller to the problem – a director of a correctional facility in Lanham, Md., Steve Steurer, said he believed Pell grant money should be available to sex offenders in treatment centers as “a public safety issue.” He mentioned that there is research (the article gave no hint that he mentioned where) that shows prisoners who are educated are less likely to strike again.

However, this was definitely not the case with rapist James Sturtz, whose story is told in the Monday article. As AP reported, Sturtz was educated in a vocational program while in prison to become a janitor, and raped again after being released. (Remember, the inmates in question are all individuals who judges believed were so dangerous that they had them confined indefinitely to treatment centers after they were released from prison.)

In Monday’s article, the U.S. Education Department’s spokeswoman did say that any “overawards” would be investigated. However, she points out, the law allows sex offenders in treatment facilities to receive these funds. The problem is bigger than the funds going to CDs.

As Alex Villalobos, a Republican in the Florida state senate, said in the 2003 St. Petersburg Times article: “If the federal government has a lot of money to spend, we’re short on money to give them treatment as sexual predators.” He added, “If the federal government is sending them money to put them through college, I suggest the federal government send them money to do what we’re supposed to be doing there … If they have extra cash, we could hire more medical people to supervise them.”