Should Prisoners Receive Federally-Funded College Education?

Should prison be a punishment, or a chance for convicts to reform? This old argument has recently been reopened by President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch as part of a pilot program at a prison in Jessup, MD. This three-year pilot program will provide a limited number of students in prison with access to Federal Pell Grants to pay for college courses.

Up until now, prisoners have not been able to receive Pell Grants for education since President Clinton signed a bill revoking their access in 1994. This bill, authored by U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, contended that Pell grant access for prisoners was unfair to taxpayers, law-abiding citizens, and victims of crime because it allowed law-breakers front-of-the-line access to taxpayer funds. Because they have no income, she reasoned, prisoners were being allowed to “push law-abiding citizens out of the way.”

Reopening the Debate

The question of whether prisoners should receive grants paid for by Federal funds is still hotly debated over two decades later. Many proponents of using Pell grants for inmates argue that it is a necessary step to rehabilitate prisoners and help them on the path toward becoming a law-abiding citizen once again. Those who are opposed to the bill believe that while education for inmates is a good step in the right direction, using Federal funds isn’t the right way to go about it. While the president’s administrative action cannot bring Pell grants back for prisoners (only Congressional action can reverse the law), it can temporarily waive some of the rules and provide grants to a small number of prisoners “for research purposes”.

Evidence from Studies

A Department of Justice funded study conducted by the RAND Corp. in 2013 has shown that receiving an education while incarcerated greatly reduces the likelihood that a former prisoner will commit another crime. The study discovered that the educated inmates were 13 percent more likely to find a job after being released from prison, and were 43 percent less likely to return. According to Secretary Arne Duncan, “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.” Only time will tell whether or not Congress agrees with him.

Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP has served the legal needs of Southern California with over 50 years of combined experience. If you are facing criminal charges, contact our firm today for a free, confidential consultation.