In recent years realization has grown among Democrats and Republicans that much of the mid-’90s effort to “get tough on crime,” in particular that related to prison sentences and policies, was costly and counterproductive, adding to many prisoners’ sentences a lifetime of poverty and a likelihood of recidivism.
The prison population grew from about 900,000 people in state and federal prisons in 1994, to more than 1.5 million as of 2016, excluding another 615,000 in local jails and 48,000 in juvenile detention.
For about 90 percent of those in prison, they will serve those sentences and be released. But since 1994, they have been released with less opportunity to benefit from a post-secondary education that can allow them to rebuild lives, support families and end a cycle that too often returns them behind bars.
As part of the 1994 Crime Bill, the eligibility of prison inmates to apply for federal financial aid for post-secondary education was eliminated. College and vocational programs often are available in prisons and correctional facilities — as they are at Monroe Correctional Complex through Edmonds Community College — but limited tuition support has been left to private groups and a handful of states that provide support.
The financial aid was yanked from inmates under the belief that the aid was coming at the expense of law-abiding students. That belief, however, ignored the fact that the federal Pell Grant financial aid program is awarded to students based on financial need. In any event, of the 23,000 inmates receiving Pell Grants in 1994, the $35 million in funding they received represented a fraction of 1 percent of the $6 billion awarded to students that year.
For more than 20 years, the ban on financial aid for inmates has hampered opportunities to rehabilitate lives. More than 70 percent of inmates have indicated a desire to participate in post-secondary education, but many are stymied by wait lists and a lack of financial aid, according to a 2014 study for the Department of Education.
A 2013 Rand Corp. analysis of numerous studies showed that those who participate in education programs in prisons were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release and that for every $1 spent on education programs in prison, $4 to $5 were saved by taxpayers in decreased incarceration costs.
And the education was effective for released inmates, increasing the odds of employment after prison by 13 percent to 28 percent.
It’s not difficult to see that, even with the stigma of prison in someone’s past, the completion of education or training while in prison demonstrates a prospective employee’s drive to persevere, succeed and be productive.
The ban remains, though there have been incremental steps to make education programs more available in prisons, according to an article this year in The Marshall Project. President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act in 2008 that expanded funding for state and local governments to provide educational and vocational training in prison.
And in 2016, the Obama administration launched its own Second Chance program, a pilot program that allowed about 4,000 inmates in prisons in 27 states, including Washington state, to again qualify for Pell Grants. The pilot project has marked its second year and has been renewed by the federal Department of Education for the coming school year.
But the program is reaching only a quarter of the inmates that qualified for Pell Grants before the ban, and its continuation is left to the discretion each year of the Secretary of Education.
Congress has considered reforms in recent years, but bipartisan legislation, especially related to sentencing reforms and a scaling back of mandatory minimums, has slowed. What has passed most recently in the House, the First Steps Act, takes some measured steps, including an increase in funding for education and job skills training and provisions for inmates to earn credits that can reduce prison time for completion of education programs.
A companion bill in the Senate is waiting for action, but that provides the opportunity for senators to add language to their legislation that would end the ban on Pell Grant aid for inmates or at least expand the Second Chance program to more inmates at more prisons and in all 50 states.
Federal and state lawmakers must continue work to repeal laws that have only increased recidivism, frustrated efforts to rebuild lives and wasted taxpayer money. But in their first steps, lawmakers should end the ban on inmates’ financial aid and allow those in prison to take their next steps.