Legislation introduced recently in the Senate and House would restore Pell Grant eligibility for individuals incarcerated in federal and state prisons to reduce recidivism by giving prisoners greater opportunity to successfully return to their communities.
S. 2423, introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and 15 cosponsors, and H.R. 254, introduced by Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) and five cosponsors, would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to remove language added in 1994 that prohibits prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. A three-year experimental pilot program instituted by President Obama in 2015, however, has allowed approximately 4,000 inmates at more than 100 correctional facilities to enroll in Pell Grant-funded programs. The pilot program, known as Second Chance Pell, will expire at the end of this year.
“When we give people in prison an opportunity to earn an education, our communities are safer, our taxpayers save money, and we can end the cycle of recidivism,” Schatz said when introducing his legislation on Feb. 14. “The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act would restore a program we know already works and give people a real chance to rebuild their lives.”
Schatz pointed out that higher education can have a dramatic impact on reducing the national recidivism rate of 43.3 percent within three years. He cited a Texas Department of Criminal Justice study that found that higher education reduced recidivism to 13.7 percent for former prisoners who earned an associate’s degree, 5.6 percent for those earning a bachelor’s degree, and less than 1 percent for those earning a master’s degree.
He also emphasized estimates showing that an investment of $1 million in prison education programs prevents approximately 600 crimes, while the same amount of funding would only prevent approximately 350 crimes if invested in incarceration alone.
The ABA adopted policy in 2015 supporting restoration of the Pell Grant program for incarcerated individuals who qualify under existing need-based criteria. The background report accompanying the policy notes that Pell Grant funding directly counters recidivism problems by “helping equip individuals for reintegration into society successfully with diplomas, skills and certification.”
The ABA background report states that there is little indication that removing prisoners from Pell Grant eligibility in 1994 produced any tangible benefits for society and may have reduced public safety and exacted severe social and financial costs. A 2013 study by the Rand Corporation reported that incarcerated individuals who received an education while in prison were 43 percent less likely to be arrested than inmates who did not receive additional education.
More than 60 public safety, civil rights, and educational organizations support the legislation.