The Rhode Island ACLU has called on the Board of Governors for Higher Education to amend its financial aid policies to prevent harm to students adversely affected by the General Assembly’s adoption of a new law in June (known as “Article 22”) that treats all 17-year-olds as adults for criminal justice purposes. In a letter to the Board, the ACLU pointed out that “little attention has been paid to the direct impact that Article 22 may have on the educational rights of some students.”

The letter to the Board was prompted by the fact that the agency’s financial aid requirements for state aid mirror those of the federal Higher Education Act. In 1998, Congress amended that Act to deny federal financial aid to college students with drug convictions (and only drug convictions – not serious violent felonies or any other type of crime). With the adoption of Article 22, seventeen-year-old students entering college and applying for financial aid will, for the first time, be affected by the restriction. That is because the federal drug penalty does not apply to an “adjudication arising out of a juvenile proceeding.” Since the drug convictions of 17-year-olds will no longer be adjudicated in Family Court, these students will now be ineligible for college financial aid at both the state and federal level.

Since the 1998 federal restriction was adopted, literally hundreds of students in Rhode Island have been denied financial aid under that law. The ACLU’s letter noted that it has “undoubtedly prevented some, if not many, of them from being able to attend college at all.” The ACLU urged the Board to revise its current financial aid policies to eliminate applicant compliance with the federal drug penalty provision as a condition of receiving state financial aid. The letter noted that financial aid offices in approximately fifteen other states also ignore the federal drug conviction question when evaluating an applicant’s eligibility for state financial aid.

The ACLU’s letter also encouraged the Board to contact the General Assembly leadership to urge the repeal of Article 22 at the earliest opportunity. The ACLU has made a similar request to college and university presidents in the state in light of the law’s potential impact on their students. A Senate legislative committee is holding a public hearing tomorrow on Article 22’s impact.

The ACLU called Article 22 “quite devastating for teenagers who now face the adult courts – and an adult criminal record – for minor offenses that used to be routinely handled in the Family Court process.”