ON THE AGENDA | JUNE 16TH, 2016 | MADISON GORDON and Erin Knepler

Second Chance Pell Grants: Finding Common Ground on Education for Prisoners

While our instinct may be to view Pell for prisoners as a partisan issue ripe for hostility rather than real problem solving, current and historical politics suggest otherwise.

Last summer, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Education launched a pilot program for incarcerated individuals called Second Chance Pell. Through this five-year program, a select number of colleges and universities receive Pell Grant funding to teach courses to currently incarcerated individuals, helping them work toward an associate and/or bachelorís degree.

Rather than providing Pell Grants directly to prisoners, the colleges receive funds to cover educational costs and provide educational opportunities for incarcerated students. Some colleges offer online educational opportunities to inmates, and others teach face-to-face courses inside prisons. As part of the program, the institutions are also required to collect and monitor data to understand the effectiveness of the pilot.

Second Chance Pell has the potential to improve prospects for current inmates and reduce recidivism. But not everyone agrees with spending public tax dollars on education for inmates, and the issue is politically and emotionally charged.

Prior to the start of Second Chance Pell last summer, incarcerated individuals had not had the option to use Pell to pay for higher education in over 20 years. Back in 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included a provision that denied Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals.

A strong research base suggests higher education can reduce recidivism. According to a 2013 RAND Corporation study, those who took college-level courses while incarcerated were 43 percent less likely to relapse. This data points to the ways in which higher education can improve economic opportunity and counter forces that may drive individuals to crime.

The same RAND study also indicates that every dollar spent on correctional education programs results in $4-$5 saved from avoiding three-year re-incarceration costs.

The benefits of higher education on incarcerated populations arenít lost on the current administration. Earlier this year, President Obamaís proposed 2017 budget called for more support for Pell Grants, particularly for incarcerated individuals seeking support to enroll in higher education.

Currently, only 11 percent of incarcerated individuals in state correctional facilities and 24 percent of individuals incarcerated in federal prisons have completed at least some postsecondary education. Surveys of federal and state prisons have found that only 42 percent offer postsecondary education programs.

Public and Political Will on Pell for Prisoners

While our instinct may be to view Pell for prisoners as a partisan issue ripe for hostility rather than real problem solving, current and historical politics suggest otherwise. When the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed in 1994, Democrats held the majority in both House and Senate. Then-President Clinton and Senator Biden celebrated the billís signing.

Of course, public and political thinking and rhetoric on criminal justice have shifted dramatically over the past 20 years. Still, current federal actions suggest this is not just another intractable partisan issue. While the Obama administration is championing Pell for prisoners, both Democrats and Republicans are co-sponsoring efforts to lift the ban.

In terms of public discourse on Pell for incarcerated individuals, many of the narratives that existed back in 1994 continue today. Of course as with any divisive issue, there is a range of nuanced opinions held by the public.

Many people opposed to using Pell for prisoners believe the federal government ought to prioritize the many students and families who work so hard to put themselves and their children through college, racking up mountains of debt in the process. Asking for the federal government to subsidize the education of those incarcerated for committing a crime feels, many say, like a slap in the face.

Others support the Second Chance program in theory, but believe that state dollars rather than federal ones are most appropriate. Others desire more information about how federal and state dollars will precisely be used in these situations.

Crime is an emotionally charged issue, so it stands to reason that views on using taxpayer dollars to support prisoner education are complicated and conflicted. Taxpayers in opposition are worried about how their money is being used. Politicians are trying to make the right decisions for all of their constituents, while also making decisions that lead to better opportunities and less crime. And many incarcerated individuals are trying to make a better future for themselves and their families.

How can we bridge the divisions that exist? At Public Agenda, we believe that better opportunities for deliberation are the answer. It is up to us to dig deeper and give citizens and leaders the means to make meaningful progress on what is certainly a complex issue.

This blog post is the first in a series of three in which Public Agenda is taking a deeper look into the need for better deliberation between policy makers and the general public when it comes to government spending on higher education degrees for incarcerated individuals.


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