(Dave Martin/AP)

David Domenici is the director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings.

This fall, as federally funded Pell Grants helped almost 9 million high school graduates attend college, a significant number of would-be students were left to sit idle in secure juvenile facilities around the country. These young people could be taking online courses and acquiring skills to help them turn their lives around. But most are unable to do so because of a misinterpretation of a 20-year-old law that denies Pell Grant funding to adults serving criminal sentences.

That law, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, reversed a long-standing policy by making individuals serving criminal sentences in state or federal penal institutions ineligible for Pell Grants. The ban has been in and out of the news over the years, as repeated calls to overturn it have run into resistance. What has gone largely unnoticed, however, is that thousands of people in youth facilities who qualified for Pell Grants have also been told, incorrectly, that they were ineligible.

In nearly every state, young people who break the law — except those charged as adults — are not considered criminals and do not serve criminal sentences. Instead, they are deemed delinquent and are placed in the care of juvenile justice agencies charged with promoting their rehabilitation while ensuring public safety. This means that they are, and always have been, eligible for Pell Grants. Sadly, though, once the Pell Grant ban went into effect, almost everyone — including financial aid counselors — assumed it applied to juveniles, too.

Approximately 9 percent of the 70,000 youth in secure facilities in the United States have earned their high school diplomas or GEDs. This means that thousands of young people could be starting college while they complete their rehabilitative programs. Yet only 2 percent of these youth are enrolled in postsecondary educational programs.

In many states, delinquent youth can remain in juvenile facilities up to age 21, and earning a high school diploma generally doesn’t get them released. These older, credentialed youth urgently need opportunities to develop their academic and work skills. But few get that chance.

Instead of taking postsecondary courses, many spend their days doing work on their facility’s grounds or sitting in high school classes they don’t need. When released, most will be jobless. To further their education, they will have to start the college application and financial aid process from scratch, and often on their own, since they won’t be in a high school setting. Odds are they won’t take those steps.

It doesn’t have to be this way. College-ready juveniles could be taking online college classes right now, preparing themselves for a successful transition upon release — if the Education Department would simply clarify that these juveniles are eligible for Pell Grants.

Aside from being unjust, the misapplication of the Pell Grant ban isn’t even smart policy. Public opinion widely supports the notion that one goal of juvenile justice systems should be rehabilitation. Juveniles generally are held in secure settings for relatively short periods before returning to the community, and the best way to support their successful transition to college — and the brighter futures that go with it — is to enable them to start taking classes while in confinement.

Twenty years is long enough. It is time for Pell Grant justice.