Following bipartisan action in Congress and President Trump’s signature on the First Step Act at the end of last year, the nation took a significant step forward in correcting unproductive policies passed in the 1994 Crime Act.
That 25-year-old law, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, rather than “getting tough on crime,” created racial inequities in sentencing, relied too heavily on mandatory minimum sentences and took away opportunities for education and retraining for those in prison.
The First Step Act has started to reverse some of the more draconian and counter-productive provisions, reducing the disparity in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine; easing mandatory minimum sentences, especially for nonviolent offenders; increasing the “good time” credits inmates can earn; and extending credit for participation in vocational and rehabilitation programs.
But, as the name implies, this was as much a first step in sentencing and prison reforms as it is a first step for prison inmates.
A recent policy change for Washington State’s correctional facilities and slow progress on ending another policy of the 1994 Crime Act, represent potential steps backward.
A Seattle-based nonprofit recently was surprised to learn of a newly adopted policy by the state’s Department of Corrections that its donations of used books to prisoners would no longer be accepted. Department officials said the blanket rejection of donations of used books was because mail room staff at correction facilities didn’t have time to check the books for appropriateness or contraband items tucked between the pages.
Exceptions were made for used books provided by Sno-Isle Library’s Monroe branch to the Monroe Correctional Complex, and books purchased from approved providers, such as Amazon.
But the Seattle nonprofit, Books To Prisoners, which has offered its service nationwide since 1973, told the literary website BookRiot that it carefully inspects the books it donates and that in its years of service it has never had a complaint about contraband material in its donations.
Friday, Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair told The Seattle Times that he planned to meet with staff from Books To Prisoners to ensure a process was in place for the donations.
Finding a solution that allows for those donations, at least from a vetted nonprofit, is an important service that would continue to encourage literacy and education among prisoners in state facilities. The donated books are valuable to prisoners because they can request specific titles from the nonprofit that may not be available in prison libraries, and prison libraries — themselves operating on small budgets — are open on limited hours.
A second step requires action by the federal Department of Education and by Congress.
One of the more damaging provisions of the 1994 crime bill was the revocation of prisoners’ eligibility for Pell grants, student financial aid that allowed prisoners to earn certificates and degrees at facilities where colleges offered programs, as Edmonds Community College does at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
A recent report by Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality estimated that more than 463,000 prisoners nationwide would be eligible if Pell grants were made available beyond about 12,000 who have received them as part of a pilot project started during the Obama administration.
Launched in 2016, the Second Chance Pell pilot project, which is available in this state to eligible prisoners through programs at Tacoma, South Seattle and Centralia community colleges, has yet to receive an intended review and a report to Congress by the federal Department of Education.
The federal Government Accountability Office, at the request of members of Congress, recently released its own study that recommended the Department of Education, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, complete its evaluation and findings regarding the pilot project. Congress, with or without that report, needs to act to increase the availability of Pell grants to inmates.
The GAO’s limited report, however, noted a need for further investments to extend the program. College administrators that the GAO interviewed reported some challenges in helping incarcerated students apply for and gain eligibility to financial aid and the Pell grants, including resuming payments for student loans that were in default.
But others already have considered the effectiveness of providing greater accessibility to college degree and certificate programs to incarcerated students.
The Vera and Georgetown report found that, because of the lack of financial aid and access to programs, only 9 percent of those incarcerated receive a certificate or degree from a college or trade school while in prison.
That’s a wasted opportunity for those incarcerated and for the communities they join after prison.
Those who leave prison with some form of post-secondary education are 43 percent less likely to reoffend than those without. And for, those who are parents, their children also have better odds that they, too, will earn more than a high school diploma, improving their chances of avoiding poverty and involvement with the criminal justice system.
For Washington state itself, if Pell grants were again made available, the report found that the improved wages for released individuals would increase by a total of $2.5 million in the first year of release alone. And the state, with a reduction in prison population because of decreased recidivism could save $18.6 million each year in prison costs. If 50 percent of those eligible for Pell grants used them to get degrees before release, all 50 states would save $366 million a year combined.
About 90 percent of those who are in prison will eventually be released, whether they have the tools they need for life outside prison or not. Those who are allowed to use their time in prison productively to improve literacy, earn college credits, degrees and certificates in trades will be best prepared to support themselves and their families, join their communities and offer their skills to employers.
State and federal officials need to take the next steps now to provide the access and tools to those in who are motivated to improve their lives.