Chris Uggen's Blog: pell's bells: college aid for sex offenders

Monday, March 17, 2008

pell's bells: college aid for sex offenders

i'm not going to argue that convicted sex offenders should be the first in line for student financial aid*, but i'd like to offer a few snarky comments on today's associated press story on college aid for sex predators.

c'mon the story practically writes itself: take a stigmatized deviant group, document some group members deriving a benefit from a government program, record the sanctimonious outrage of an obscure legislator, and start those fingers a-waggin'.

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.

intriguing lead, but it glosses over the whole civil commitment issue. see, mr. sturtz was sent to prison and completed his sentence. he remains locked up for fear he will attack again, but he's supposed to be a patient in a treatment center rather than an inmate in a prison. are readers so accustomed to sweeping punishments that treament centers have become synonymous with prisons?

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.
somebody seems to be exploiting a loophole in this case, but i'm not sure the guys in the treatment center are the ones to blame. had they been released after fulfilling the obligations of their criminal sentences, they'd be eligible for pell assistance, but they were involuntarily committed to an indefinite spell of treatment. and just how many cases of pell-abusin' sex offenders are we talking about here? dozens implies something more than twelve, but there is little evidence to suggest great expenditure or abuse.
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 a "last shall be first" passage, implying that sex offenders are the least deserving among the undeserving. the article doesn't ask whether prisoners should be eligible for student aid, or whether students should continue to lose assistance because they have been convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession.
"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... 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.
i won't quibble with representative keller's math, but i'm not convinced that cutting off such aid would save millions. let's say three dozen inmates have received pell grants. the average award would have to be about $56,000 for us to save $2,000,000. since the maximum pell award is $4,310, however, we'd need at least 464 recipients to get near two million.

the bigger issue here is that 20 states hold people indefinitely after they have served their prison sentences. the representative is justifiably concerned about money, but he might also want to take a close look at the per diems on these treatment centers. many more millions could be saved by the judicious release of a small number of these people after they have done their time.
...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.

i'd agree that the current practice is indefensible, since administrators should be able to determine whether the money is being spent on educational expenses. on the other hand, it is not unprecedented for students to drop courses after receiving financial aid, especially in the absence of academic advising or support.
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."
now we're getting somewhere. although these sex offenders are purportedly in treatment, we know that they will never be released. i've got no sympathy for those convicted again and again for horrible crimes. nevertheless, when mr. sturtz talks about getting a job on the outside, i can't help but think, "the poor sap still believes he might actually get out."

right now, sex offenders are stuck in a creepy constitutional no-man's land between legal punishment and medical-treatment-without-parole. there may be no easy answer that would preserve both public safety and individual rights, but i'd suggest the following: give 'em lengthy but indeterminate sentences, with the range determined by a legislature and/or sentencing commission, in-prison treatment, and -- if treatment goes well and a qualified board so rules -- a realistic hope of discretionary parole.

*seriously, mr. o'reilly. i'm not going to argue this position, so your producers can just stop calling about it.


At 9:39 PM, Blogger newsocprof said...

one of my undergrads wrote a fantastic paper on media coverage of crime -- one of her case studies was "the factor" and her conclusion was basically that o'reilly is convinced there is a predatory sex offender around every corner. And, btw, she was equally tough on the NYT and All Things Considered.

I would LOVE to see you on the factor, discussing sex offenders and using the felon fund to buy the guys under the bridge in florida some tents. Come to think of it, I would love to see anyone with legitimacy discussing crime on the factor. With a few notable exceptions, his go to people seem to be profs who've been sanctioned somewhere for questionable research practices or people who don't actually study what they are there to talk about...

At 5:30 PM, Blogger christopher uggen said...

yeah, i'm often denying requests, since i'm a little hesitant to pop off on things i haven't personally investigated. then again, i've yet to be formally sanctioned...

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Copenhagen Firefighter said...

I'm really starting to become leary of the exorbitant numbers that are spouted by the statistic wizards regarding sex offenders. Your mention of sex offenders being placed in a constitutional limbo begs the question...why? Depending on what study you refer to, sex offenders are among the lower recidivists when you factor in treatment and length of incarceration. Recidivism numbers are actually suggested in ranges from 8 to 13%.

Drug offenders have to be among the highest recidivists, exceeding 57%.

I say this to bring to light what most rational individuals may already deduce. That we are spending WAY too much on something that is less of an issue than media outlets are making it out to be. Civil commitment has its place. But without some form of due process, it is a form of civil abuse of the individual. If someone isn't capable of living among society, then I would simply suggest giving them life in prison. Certainly, that would be much less expensive than the per diems charged under the guise of "treatment".

At 1:42 AM, Blogger flash said...

I'm totally agree with you Chris sex rating is higher in student and there's a lot more to do for these guys.

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