A group of six Congressional Democrats has introduced a bill in Congress that would allow state and federal prisoners to receive Pell Grants for a college education, even while incarcerated.
The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act would revoke Congress’s 1994 ban on providing Pell Grants to prisoners. Advocates say improving educational access will help with rehabilitation while also lowering recidivism rates.
“The REAL Act is about restoring education opportunities for our nation’s prisoners so they will have the opportunity to reintegrate as productive members of the community post-incarceration,” said Democratic Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards in a statement. “We know that helping economically challenged individuals work toward post-secondary study and training provides a better future for all Americans. We should provide such opportunities to all to ensure that the cyclical process of repeat incarceration does not continue.”
Besides Edwards, the other five sponsors of the bill are Reps. Danny Davis, Barbara Lee, Robert Scott, Rosa DeLauro, and Cedric Richmond.
Prisoners who were not serving life sentences used to be eligible for Pell Grants, but Congress revoked that eligibility in 1994 as part of an omnibus crime bill. At the time, Congressmen from both parties expressed indignation that prisoners could receive federal benefits while others were left out.
“Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell grant for a policeman’s child is cut but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can still get a big check,” then-Rep. Bart Gordon said at the time, representing the thinking of many.
Since then, this sense of outrage has abated only slightly. Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had to abandon a plan to pay for college classes for inmates after a massive backlash from legislators. Opposition was so strong that three Republican Congressmen from New York introduced a bill dubbed the “Kids Before Cons” Act seeking to abolish any federal money from being used to educate convicted criminals.
However, prison reform activists, including some conservatives, argue that opposition to educating prisoners is an emotional reaction that ignores the benefits such education provides.
Research by the RAND Corporation, for instance, found that inmates who received vocational education were 43 percent less likely to reoffend, even after accounting for personality differences between inmates who pursue education and those who do not. Educated inmates were also 13 percent more likely to find a job upon graduation. According to RAND, the return on investment for educating prisoners could $4-5 for each dollar spent just from the reduced cost of re-incarceration.
Supporters also argue that, as far as federal initiatives go, giving Pell to prisoners would be relatively cheap. Prior to the 1994 ban, prisoners received just $34.6 million in Pell Grants out of a budget of $5.3 billion. If prisoners took the same percentage of the 2013-14 Pell budget of $33.7 billion, that would come out to $220 million a year.
However, skeptics could point out that 1994 was substantially different from today. Since then, the U.S. prison population has ballooned by more than 50 percent, and higher overall rates of college attendance today could mean that more prisoners would avail themselves of Pells, driving the annual cost up. If every single eligible prisoner obtained a grant, the estimated annual cost would be about $5 billion, according to Inside Higher Ed.
With Republicans in firm control of both the House and Senate, the chances of a Democrat-backed bill being passed is slim, but it could gain some traction if Republicans give it support. The Daily Caller News Foundation reached out to the office of Republican Rep. John Kline, who leads the House Education and the Workforce Committee, but his office was unable to immediately comment about his attitude towards giving Pell Grants back to prisoners.
Even if the bill goes nowhere, however, this summer could see a fierce debate over federal dollars being used to educate prisoners. This summer, the Obama administration is expected to create an experimental program that would allow certain prisons to be exempted from the current ban.
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