THIS SUMMER, for the first time in 22 years, 12,000 prison inmates can use federal funding to take college courses — a change that could ease their transition to civilian life and reduce the chances they will commit crimes again upon release. A two-page bill in the House and Senate would offer the same opportunity to hundreds of thousands more.
In 1994, Congress banned Pell Grants for prisoners. The rule remains in place, but last year the Obama administration announced a pilot program in partnership with 67 colleges and universities to let some prisoners earn a degree while they serve their sentences. The program launched last month, but allowing all inmates to benefit is up to Congress: Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced legislation to strike the prisoner prohibition last year, and recently Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) brought a matching proposal to the Senate. Both should pass.
Legislators made a mistake two decades ago. They decided that educating prisoners for free would reward bad behavior at the expense of law-abiding students who struggle to pay tuition. But prisoner education encourages good behavior; inmates who make the effort should be encouraged. And the expense is modest: In 1993 and 1994, funding for prisoners took up less than 1 percent of Pell Grants. The backers of the restorations legislation say Congress could reinstate inmate eligibility without depriving students outside of the prison system.
In fact, programs that reduce recidivism save money. Right now, 68 percent of prisoners end up back behind bars within three years of release. Recidivism rates decrease to less than 14 percent when prisoners receive associate’s degrees and to less than 6 percent when they earn bachelor’s degrees. Every dollar spent on educating prisoners saves $5 in reincarceration costs, a Rand Corp. analysis found.
Those dollars also can change lives. Inmates leave prison to find a world different from the one they left. They struggle to reunite with families, rejoin communities and rebuild their lives. Without education, the adjustment is harder and joblessness more likely. As a result, too many prisoners reenter the outside world only to find themselves serving another sentence after just a few years, and too many other Americans are hurt by their crimes. In two pages and fewer than 1,000 words, Congress could change that.