Recent attempts to reduce the U.S. prison population have focused on reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and reclassifying crimes, but the Obama administration wants to expand reform efforts to prisoner education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch unveiled a program Friday that will offer Pell Grants—financial aid for college courses that doesn’t need to be repaid—to some inmates as part of an experimental pilot program.
Congress banned the use of Pell Grants by prisoners in 1994. But Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced a bill in May to reinstate prisoners’ eligibility for the grants, which can amount to as much as $5,775 for the 2015–2016 school year. Anticipating Duncan and Lynch’s announcement, a Republican congressman introduced a bill late Wednesday that would forbid the Education Department from providing higher education funding to prisoners for experimental purposes.
But amid a national discussion on mass incarceration, researchers say correctional education programs can improve the employment rate for offenders after they’re released and reduce the chance they’ll offend again.
The RAND Corp., a nonprofit global policy think tank, has conducted extensive analyses of the available research on prison education programs. According to one RAND study, the elimination of Pell Grant funding for prisoners had a profoundly negative effect on prison postsecondary education programs. Within one year of its elimination, participation in these programs dropped 44%. About half of all postsecondary correctional education programs closed.
“Our survey results suggest that reinstatement of the Pell Grants for this population may have a substantial effect in expanding postsecondary opportunities for state prisoners,” the authors wrote, noting that “these courses today are primarily paid for by the individual inmate or family finances,” and that many inmates can’t afford the cost.
Lois M. Davis, the report’s lead author, said she couldn’t quantify the exact effect that the program’s reinstatement might have on prisoner participation in postsecondary education, but she said it will definitely save taxpayers money.
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