As of early April, imprisoned Americans stand to gain easier access to a higher education. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Representatives Danny Davis (D-Illinois), Jim Banks (R-Indiana), and French Hill (R-Arkansas) introduced a bipartisan piece of legislation to restore Pell Grant access to the incarcerated. If the bill passes, 463,000 prisoners will become eligible for federal financial support toward earning a college degree, which experts argue could go a long way toward improving life after incarceration.
Established under the Higher Education Act of 1965, Pell Grants—named after Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell—offer undergraduates from low-income families financial assistance for various post-baccalaureate programs. At the law's outset, prisoners were eligible to apply. Then, spurred by Democrats hoping to appear tough on crime, Congress passed the 1994 Crime Act, which (among other measures) banned Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated. "Making life difficult for prisoners was the order of the day," said Kevin Ring, a congressional staffer at the time and now president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a non-profit advocacy group. "Whether the punitive measures made communities safer or not didn't seem to worry anyone."
Several studies have since underscored the cost of that indifference. A RAND meta-analysis of the literature published in 2018 found that "inmates participating in correctional education programs were 28% less likely to recidivate when compared with inmates who did not participate in correctional education programs." The United States Sentencing Commission similarly revealed that inmates with less than a high school diploma had recidivism rates of over 60 percent, while those with a college degree had a 19 percent recidivism rate.
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