Detainees are among the least educated people in America. This despite research that shows that education is one of the most effective ways to prevent people from returning to jail.
Now there is a renewed interest in giving imprisoned adults better access to higher education. A new bipartisan congressional bill would allow inmates to use the federal Pell grants – designed for low-income students – to fund higher education, including college courses and vocational training.
"When we give inmates an opportunity to study, our communities are safer, taxpayers save money and we can end the cycle of recidivism," said US Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, godfather of the bill, in a declaration. The bill "would give people a real chance to rebuild their lives," said Schatz.
If passed, the Education and Learning Restoration Act, known as the REAL Act, would cancel a two-decade ban on using Pell in prisons. This ban, put in place in 1994 by Congress and President Bill Clinton, is part of an era of "repressive" policies.
"Democrats and Republicans both helped create the problem in '94," says Jesse Kelley, who studies criminal justice at R Street, a conservative research firm. "So now everyone is saying" OK, well, we all agree that something needs to be fixed. Let's do it. ""
The idea of reintroducing Pell Grant to the prison population was born in 2015, when the education department of President Barack Obama announced an experiment, called Second Chance Pell. The department has identified universities, community colleges and work training programs for qualified inmates for Pell. Today, according to the Ministry of Education, the pilot initiative has involved more than 10,000 inmates in 64 institutions. Although there is no official expiration date on experimental pilots, the Ministry of Education said that they usually lasted about three to five years. Congress should pass laws such as the REAL law to eliminate Pell's second chance of the pilot phase.
Two recent reports provide an overview of the effectiveness of the pilot program. In January, the Vera Institute of Justice presented the most comprehensive program to date. He found:
- The majority of inmates are academically eligible to take college-level courses, which means that they hold a graduate degree or a high school diploma.
- Education in prison means better job opportunities after release. The report estimates increase of about 45.3 million dollars combined earnings of workers previously incarcerated in the first year after release from prison.
- Access to education will reduce the number of people returning to prison after their release, state savings a projection of $ 365.8 million per year on the costs of incarceration.
In 2018, a previous report of the Vera Institute of Justice had revealed that program participants described the experience as a transformation and became positive role models in prison.
"People in prison are often really ready to seize opportunities for growth and change and think of new futures," said Ruth Delaney, Program Manager at the Vera Institute of Justice. "Offering a college in prison is therefore a special time in someone's life to give him the opportunity to make that change."
In early April, the Government Accountability Office, often called the congressional oversight body, reviewed the Second Chance Pell pilot project and identified some implementation issues. The first was eligibility: to receive Pell, an inmate must complete the free federal student financial assistance application, or FAFSA – and to be able to complete the FAFSA, and be eligible for federal student financial assistance, the Ministry of Education requires students to be enrolled in the selective service (in case the United States has already had a military project). This is something that young men must do before the age of 26. But one of Michigan's pilot sites could only occupy half of the vacancies because many of its inmates had not signed up for selective service, and the window to do so had closed.
The GAO also discussed other issues, such as debt related to previous student loans, making ineligible for inmates, and the complex auditing process of FAFSA, which often results in student outbursts. Based on these findings, the GAO suggests that even more inmates could benefit from these grants by providing appropriate guidance for completing and correcting entries.
All of this comes as politicians moved away from the era of "crime suppression" that had facilitated Pell's ban in 1994 to a more comprehensive approach to criminal justice, rightly termed "smart" facing crime ". In late 2018, President Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill, entitled First Step Act, which he celebrated during the state of his union. "The two sides have united for a revolutionary reform of the criminal justice system," he said. "They said it could not be done."
And this momentum, to open up opportunities for incarcerated people, has also been passed on to state legislatures. Lawmakers in North Carolina, for example, are trying to pass a bill that would expand scholarship opportunities for inmates.
"After the success of the law on the first step, everyone wants to continue the trend," said Kelley.