The Obama administration announced Friday it is ready to roll out a new program that will revive Pell Grant access for U.S. prisoners, despite an ongoing Congressional ban on such funding.
Under the Second Chance Pell Program, 12,000 inmates at over 100 state and federal facilities will receive $30 million in college scholarships financed by U.S. taxpayers. This will allow them to attend one of 67 schools selected by the Obama administration to take part. The Pell Grants will max out at $5,815, and inmates won’t have to pay them back.
The newly-announced program is the completed version of a plan the administration first announced last year.
“Access to high quality education is vital to ensuring that justice-involved individuals have an opportunity to reclaim their lives and restore their futures,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement, using the Obama administration’s new preferred nomenclature for criminals.
The Obama administration argues the program will help reduce recidivism and allow criminals to turn their lives around.
Prisoners were once able to receive Pell Grants, but Congress barred the practice in 1994 as part of a larger crime bill. The Second Chance Pell Program evades this prohibition by taking advantage of another law allowing the Department of Education to launch pilot programs for research purposes that conflict with existing law. Officially, then, the new program is an experiment that will measure how the grants affect recidivism for the inmates who receive them.
“We have called for Congress to reverse the mistake that was made in the mid-’90s to deny access to higher education to folks who are incarcerated by taking away Pell Grants, but that ban remains in place until Congress acts,” Secretary of Education John King told reporters during a conference call.
The administration hopes the program’s outcome will confirm prior research indicating that money invested in inmates’ education pays off in the form of higher productivity and lower recidivism. If that’s the case, it may bolster the chances of Congress restoring Pell rights to prisoners in general.
It could be a hard sell, though. Among Republicans in Congress, the only movement has been a bill introduced last year by Rep. Chris Collins from New York that would prohibit even the pilot program. Other party leaders, like House education committee chairman John Kline, have criticized the pilot program as a crass attempt to create new programs without Congressional involvement or support.
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