The Obama administration has unveiled a tentative program that looks to give prisoners the right to receive Pell Grants for the first time in over 20 years.
The program, dubbed the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, is scheduled to begin by fall 2016, and will allow a limited number of prisoners to enroll in a select set of associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs. How many prisoners will participate, what degrees they will be able to seek, and even how much the program will cost are all uncertain at this point.
But the program is already arousing anger in Congress. Pell Grants for federal and state prisoners were banned in 1994 as part of an anti-crime bill, and Obama’s new program is a clear effort to at least partially circumvent this ban. (RELATED: Dems Seek Pell Grants For Prisoners)
The administration argues it is allowed to launch this program because of a federal law that allows the Department of Education to undertake limited experiments in how it delivers student aid. Officially, the Second Chance program will observe whether prisoners receiving Pell Grants have lower recidivism rates and greater success in getting jobs after leaving prison.
Some research, including a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation, suggests prisoners who receive education behind bars are less likely to reoffend. The RAND study indicated that every dollar spent on prisoner education yielded a $4-5 return on investment due to the lowered cost of re-incarceration.
News of the plan leaked out earlier this week, and congressional opposition has already started to emerge. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate’s education committee, sent a statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation saying the president’s idea may be worthwhile, but is also illegal.
“This may be a worthwhile idea for some prisoners, but the administration absolutely does not have the authority to do this without approval from Congress, because the Higher Education Act prohibits prisoners from receiving Pell Grants,” Alexander said. “The Obama Administration should focus on the existing prisoner job training and re-entry programs through the Departments of Justice and Labor for which Congress provided nearly $300 million last year.”
Other Republicans have cited concerns about the program’s cost, and some are simply hostile to the idea of taxpayer money being used to educate felons. In the House, New York Republican Chris Collins has reintroduced his “Kids Before Cons” Act, which seeks to explicitly block Obama’s plan.
“The Obama administration’s plan to put the cost of a free college education for criminals on the backs of the taxpayers is consistent with their policy of rewarding lawbreakers while penalizing hardworking Americans,” Collins said in a statement. “The Kids Before Cons Act closes the loophole the Obama administration is trying to exploit, and protects taxpayers from footing the bill for criminals’ educations.”
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