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Restoring Pell Grants to Prisoners: Great Policy, Bad Politics
05 Nov 2012
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by Sarah Rosenberg

In 1994, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) claimed that criminals had discovered “that Pell grants are a great scam: rob a store, go to jail, and get your degree.” At the time, 27,700 state and federal prisoners were using Pell grants—far less than one percent of the overall program. But following Hutchinson’s anti-rehabilitation rhetoric, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act banned prisoners from using the $4,000 grants to take college courses. Before 1995, there were around 350 college degree programs for prisoners in the United States; by 2005, there were only 12. Hutchinson’s argument –that “prisons exist for the protection of society, not the comfort and convenience of criminals”— may work in ‘tough on crime’ campaign ads, but it’s short-sighted and irresponsible. Yes, imprisonment should protect society and punish offenders. But it must be combined with rehabilitation to ensure that imprisonment does not create lifetime criminals.

Today, one in 100 adults is behind bars in America, and nearly 95 percent of them will eventually be released and return home. With a national recidivism rate of 67.5 percent, postsecondary education can help to ensure that they can be productive members of society instead of costly, dangerous, and unemployable social failures. Research shows that correctional education—especially at the postsecondary level— can increase post-release wages and reduce recidivism. While Pell grants may not cover the total cost of tuition, the funding provides an incentive for education institutions and organizations to serve the increasing prison population. It’s past time to reinstate Pell grants for prisoners.

America’s focus on punishment at the expense of rehabilitation means increasing incarceration rates and costs. Over the past two decades, state correctional costs havequadrupled and now exceed $50 billion per year, consuming 1 in every 15 general fund dollars. Over the same time period, state spending on prisons has increased six timesas much as higher education spending. In California, the situation is even worse. In his 2010 State of the State address, Governor Schwarzenegger warned that, “Thirty years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and only 3 percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.”

Unsurprisingly, the incarceration epidemic does not affect all races equally. Young black men without a high school diploma are “more likely to be in a cell than in a workplace.” When kids drop out of school, it becomes much more difficult to find a steady job with a decent salary. Without the credentials for skilled employment, they are more likely to end up on the school-to-prison pipeline. The numbers are terrifying: One in 12 African American men and 1 in 36 Hispanic men are in prison or jail, while only 1 in 87 white men are serving time. As Adam Gopnik writes, “In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery.”

Like slavery, incarceration has long-term implications for former prisoners’ families and futures. One in every 28 children in America has a parent in prison, up from one in 125 just 25 years ago. Since half of all male inmates were the primary financial support for their child, imprisonment has long-term consequences for generations. These reverberating consequences are particularly damaging for the African American community, where 1 in 9 children have an incarcerated parent. “Imprisonment does more than reflect the divides of race and class,” writes Jason DeParle, a New York Times reporter. “It deepens these divides—walling off the disadvantaged, especially unskilled black men, from the promise of American life.”

When prisoners are released, most face a tough job market with limited education and a criminal record. With those qualifications, it’s not surprising that incarceration reduces former inmates’ earnings by 40 percent. There’s some evidence, however, that correctional education can increase post-release wages for minorities by 10 to 15 percent and reduce recidivism around 8 percent. In Massachusetts, state prisoners who received some college education while incarcerated had a recidivism rate nearly one third lower than the state average. With the vast majority of the fastest growing jobs requiring postsecondary education or training, prisoners who are released with a credential or degree have the opportunity to fill a need in the economy and signal to employers that they are ready for a fresh start.

Today, the maximum Pell Grant is $5,550, and it costs an average of $51,000 to keep a prisoner detained for a year. It’s a deal worth making.

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