Sex offenders get college aid

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) More than 50 committed sex offenders in Florida are receiving federal grants to take college courses while they are being involuntary held.

Federal Pell grants, primarily aimed at helping lower and middle-income students afford college, went to at least 54 sex offenders committed to a state institution under Florida’s Jimmy Ryce Act, the St. Petersburg Times reported.

Such federal aid was taken away from prison inmates by a 1994 federal law. But Jimmy Ryce offenders aren’t technically prison inmates – they’re offenders who have served their time but are deemed too dangerous to be returned to society.

The 54 students cited by the newspaper are being held under the law at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia. They’ve received about $200,000 in Pell grants to take televised courses from South Florida Community College in nearby Avon Park.

The grants went to the offenders at a time when the federal program has been cut, meaning smaller grants to the more than 4 million students served by the $12 billion a year aid program.

Pell grants have declined in how much of the cost of education they cover, from more than 80 percent of costs 25 years ago to just over 40 percent now.

Given that, some say sex offenders shouldn’t get the grants.

“Once it is determined that you are a sexual deviant, you don’t deserve to be treated the way every other person is,” said Ron Book, an advocate for victims’ rights. “It is in effect depriving others who need Pell grants where they could use their education in a more positive manner.”

But those who treat sex offenders say education helps them survive on the outside and can keep them from committing sexual crimes.

Steve Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association in Lanham, Md., said studies have shown that about 20 percent of prisoners who educate themselves behind bars do not commit crimes again for more than three years after their release.

“Research shows quite clearly that they (reoffend) at much lower rates,” Steurer said.

But state Sen. Alex Villalobos says top priority should be treatment.

“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,” said Villalobos, R-Miami. “If they have extra cash, we could hire more medical people to supervise them.”

Under the Ryce Act, sex offenders who have served their criminal sentence are subject to civil commitment if a jury deems them unfit to return to society. The law’s aim is to hold sexual predators, who are likely to repeat their crimes, indefinitely for treatment.

Federal officials said they’re looking into the grants. At issue is whether Florida’s commitment centers should be considered prisons.

“At this point it appears the school has awarded Pell grants to what we consider incarcerated students at a state penal institution, and we’re waiting to see if we get any documentation to the contrary,” said June Glickman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

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