With droves of research suggesting education is one of the most effective tools to rehabilitate those currently serving sentences behind bars, Congress is trying to do something to make education more available to inmates.
According to NPR, The Restoring Education and Learning Act, a bipartisan bill in Congress would allow incarcerated people to use federal Pell Grants offered to lower-income students to pay for college courses and workforce training.
Senator Brain Schatz (D-HI) said the bill would “give people a real chance to rebuild their lives” in a statement.
“When we give people in prison an opportunity to earn an education, our communities are safer, taxpayers save money, and we can end the cycle of recidivism,” Schatz added.
If enacted, the REAL Act would a ban on inmates accessing Pell grants that has been in place since 1994.
The idea to make Pell Grants available anew to inmates was first piloted by the Second Chance Pell experiment ran in 2015 by the Obama Administration. The Education Department under Obama identified universities, community colleges and training programs to help educated incarcerated people who qualified for Pell. To date, the pilot has involved more than 10,000 inmates and more than 60 institutions, according to NPR.
The program, per a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, could save states a projected $365 million per year on incarceration costs.
As pilots tend to last three to five years, Congress would need to pass a bill resembling the REAL Act to take Second Chance Pell out of its pilot phase, bringing it to a wider number of inmates.
“People in prison are often really ready for opportunities to grow and to change and to think about new futures that they might be able to have,” according to Ruth Delaney, a program manager at the Vera Institute of Justice. “So offering college in prison is a really great moment in someone’s life to offer the opportunity for that change.”
While the REAL Act could help reduce recidivism and save money, the Government Accountability Office reviewed Second Chance Pell in April and found a few challenges to widespread implementation, including eligibility (due to the Selective Service requirement), previous student debt, and the complicated FAFSA process.
Still, empowered by the success of the original pilot and the support for the First Step Act, which packaged a number of reforms aimed at reducing recidivism, experts have reason for optimism.
“In the afterglow of the success of the First Step Act,” said Jesse Kelley, who studies criminal justice for R Street, a conservative research firm, “everyone wants to continue the trend.”