Obama administration plans a 3- to 5-year test to see if college classes help reduce prison recidivism
The Obama administration plans to restore federal funding for prison inmates to take college courses, a potentially controversial move that comes amid a broader push to overhaul the criminal justice system.
The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.
Prisoners received $34 million in Pell grants in 1993, according to figures the Department of Education provided to Congress at the time. But a year later, Congress prohibited state and federal prison inmates from getting Pell grants as part of broad anticrime legislation, leading to a sharp drop in the number of in-prison college programs. Supporters of the ban contended federal aid should only go to law-abiding citizens.
Between the mid-1990s and 2013, the U.S. prison population doubled to about 1.6 million inmates, many of them repeat offenders, Justice Department figures show. Members of both parties—including President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—have called for a broad examination of criminal justice, such as rewriting sentencing guidelines.
A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t.
Some congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the ban. Meanwhile, administration officials have indicated they would use a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives the Education Department the authority to temporarily waive rules, such as the Pell-grant ban, as part of an experiment to study their effectiveness.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are expected to announce the program, which likely would last three to five years to yield data on recidivism rates, at a prison in Jessup, Md., on Friday. Key details aren’t yet clear, such as which institutions and what types of convicts would be allowed to participate.
An Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Asked Monday whether the agency would restore Pell grants for prisoners, Mr. Duncan told reporters, “Stay tuned.”
Stephen Steurer, head of the Correctional Education Association, an advocacy group, said two Education Department officials told him at a conferenceearly this month the agency was moving to restore Pell grants for prisoners and allow many colleges and universities to participate. Money from the grants would directly reimburse institutions for the cost of delivering courses in prisons rather than go to prisoners, Mr. Steurer said.
It will be substantial enough to create some data and to create enough information for some evaluation,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D., Ill.), who is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Donna Edwards (D., Md.) to permanently restore Pell grants for prisoners.
“I think the political landscape has actually changed since the 1990s,” said Ms. Edwards. “We haven’t really been able to get a handle on recidivism. We have to present some training and opportunities. These are programs that work.”
She said her bill would cost relatively little up front—in the tens of millions of dollars—while having the potential to cut societal costs over the long term by reducing recidivism rates. Maryland spends nearly $40,000 a year per prisoner, she said.
But spending tax dollars on college for prisoners strikes many as an affront to families that have borrowed heavily in recent years to cope with skyrocketing college costs, causing student debt to soar to $1.3 trillion. “If we really want to keep people out of prison, we need to promote education at younger ages,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R., N.Y.).
Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tabled a plan to use state dollars on in-prison college courses because of opposition from lawmakers. But in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in June that includes $12 million to promote statewide priorities, including college classes in state prison, said state Sen. Loni Hancock, whose 2014 bill paved the way for an agreement between California corrections officials and the chancellor of the state’s community colleges. Ms. Hancock said classes could begin as soon as this fall.
The administration’s plan could open the White House to new charges that it is subverting the will of Congress. The administration has been criticized for using executive powers to change immigration policy.
There are currently a limited number of college courses for prisoners that draw mostly on private funding, Mr. Steurer said. Federal funding would expand opportunities for people like Wesley Caines, 49, who left a New York prison in the spring of 2014 after serving more than two decades on a murder charge.
While incarcerated at Hudson County Correctional Facility, he used a privately funded program to earn an associate degree, then a bachelor’s and a master’s, after studying the work of Nietzsche and W.E.B. Du Bois. He’s now working for a Brooklyn firm helping other ex-offenders re-enter society. “Prison is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing environments that any human being could find themselves in,” he said. “One of the best ways to make transformative gains is to be educated. It’s not an abstract thing, it’s a very tangible thing. It teaches you critical thinking. It allows you to look at yourself, your choices, your behavior, and the consequences of them.”