Some people in state and federal prisons will be eligible for Pell Grants under a program announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Education. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program aims to help the incarcerated “get jobs, support their families and turn their lives around,” the department said in a press release.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 established Pell Grants as a type of federally funded financial aid for college students that students do not need to repay. The government decides how much aid to award each student based on financial need, cost of the school, enrollment status and future enrollment plans. The maximum amount per student for the upcoming school year is $5,775.
In 1994, Congress passed a bill that made people in state and federal prisons ineligible for Pell Grants. By that time, according to The Washington Post, 25,168 of the 3.3 million students who received the grants were prisoners, costing the government $34.6 million of the $5.3 billion it spent on the program. Some politicians felt that slice was too much of the pie. “Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell Grant for a policeman’s child is cut, but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can still get a big check,” a congressman said at the time.
On Friday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the press release: “America is a nation of second chances. Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are—it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers.”
Studies show that prison education programs help reduce recidivism rates, which in effect save taxpayer money. In its release, the Department of Education cites a 2013 RAND Corporation study, commissioned by the Department of Justice, which found that incarcerated people who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than inmates who did not participate.
“We found that for every taxpayer dollar spent on correctional education, there is a five dollar savings due to released inmates desisting from crime and not returning to prison. From a straightforward public spending and public savings perspective, correctional education is a smart investment,” Robert Bozick, a sociologist at the RAND Corporation who worked on the study, said via email.
He added: “Many folks question the benefit of providing education to criminals. However, the reality is that the majority of incarcerated individuals in this country will be released back into the community, living and working in our neighborhoods. Therefore, preparing them to successfully integrate back into our communities and resist returning to crime is in everyone’s best interest.”
Without grants, incarcerated people must pay for their own education while behind bars, said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit group. “You have to be able to afford it and most students of course can’t afford it if they’re locked up because they make pretty low wages,” he said. “So this new development, which we heard about earlier this year, is certainly a welcome change.”