Restore Pell Grant Eligibility to Incarcerated Students

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COMMENTARY | The National District Attorneys Association, the largest group representing prosecutors, supports federal grant funding for prisoners to get college degrees.

The fundamental mission of law enforcement is to improve public safety. As such, prosecutors have an interest in ensuring those we have sent to prison do not reoffend after they are released. That is why the National District Attorneys Association supports a simple, bipartisan proposal that helps tackle a complex problem: allowing prisoners to use federal Pell grants to attend college classes.

We know that few of those sent to prison will remain there forever. The vast majority—95% of all state prisoners, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics—will eventually be released back into our communities. Further, data indicates those who are educated while serving their time are more likely to find a home and a job after their release. And most importantly, they are less likely to reoffend.

A RAND Corporation report found that “inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not.” But Congress in 1994 stripped prisoners of their ability to use Pell grants, a key program that helps pay tuition for low-income college students. In 2016, the Obama administration reinstated eligibility on a small scale, creating the Second Chance Pell pilot that has so far educated about 8,800 students.

Fortunately, federal lawmakers are already looking at the question of how to help more prisoners obtain the education necessary for success after their release. The NDAA is endorsing the Restoring Education and Learning Act (REAL Act), introduced by U.S. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Brain Schatz (D-Hawaii). It reinstates Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners who qualify for the program. It would also provide additional funding so that grants to prisoners would not come at the expense of other applicants.

The bottom line: Pell Grant restoration will help reduce recidivism. That means a second chance for those who have served their time and a safer environment for the communities to which they return.

That explains why both the Obama and Trump administrations have taken critical steps to provide funding to new Second Chance Pell sites, providing incarcerated students opportunities to earn certifications, associates, and bachelor’s degrees at state prisons. Yet these pilot programs are limited in scope and funding, meaning more must be done to ensure education access is provided to those seeking to better themselves before their release. Congress can meet this demand by fully restoring federal Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners.

Prosecutors will always work to uphold our constitutional duty of protecting the communities we serve, seeking justice for victims and protecting the innocent. In this spirit, we endorse measures to reduce recidivism. Simply put, everyone benefits if prisoners are equipped to lead productive lives upon their release.

Duffie Stone is the president of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA). In 2006, he became the Solicitor for South Carolina’s Fourteenth Circuit, the only five county circuit in the state.

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