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A Second Chance for Prisoners Offers Powerful Possibilities

President Obama’s Second Chance Pell Pilot could help former prisoners be part of the solution to problems of concentrated poverty.
(Photo: Anna Jurkovska/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Anna Jurkovska/Shutterstock)

Sunday, August 9th, marked one year since Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The controversial circumstances surrounding the shooting sparked protests and civil unrest across the nation, which have catalyzed vigorous debate and introspection about the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement in the United States. To a lesser but related extent, it has also brought the issues of race and concentrated poverty to the forefront of public dialogue.

Connecting these threads, the Century Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., released a new paper looking at how unrest has played out in high-poverty, inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson. Since 2000, the number of people living in concentrated poverty has doubled, increasing from 7.2 million to 13.8 million with more children living in deprived communities than adults. While the report productively engages a variety of policies to address the problems of concentrated poverty, there's another important and related policy dimension to consider: how to support the re-entry of criminal offenders back into their communities after their release. Ex-offenders are often concentrated in similarly high-poverty and segregated minority neighborhoods and the process of transitioning back into these already-vulnerable areas can be a challenge for individuals, families, and communities alike.

But what if inmates could use their time behind bars to gain valuable skills and credentials that would help them get jobs and make them economic and social assets to struggling communities when they leave prison?

But there is solid evidence that access to correctional education helps prisoners succeed on the outside.

It is often said that prison is where criminals go to learn how to be better criminals. In the absence of other educational opportunities, that's not terribly surprising. But there is solid evidence that access to correctional education helps prisoners succeed on the outside. According to a 2013 study from the RAND Corporation, prisoners who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release than prisoners who did not participate in these programs; and their chances of finding employment were between 13 to 28 percent higher.

The Obama administration has connected these dots of race, concentrated poverty, and prison education policy and recently announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program. The pilot will provide Pell Grants to a limited number of incarcerated students on an experimental basis to cover the costs of pursuing post-secondary education and training. Since the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, federal and state prisoners have been ineligible for these funds. Former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who introduced the amendment that banned prisoners from receiving Pell Grants, argued on the Senate floor for the measure on the basis of fairness: “Because prisoners have zero income, they have been able to step to the front of the line and push law-abiding citizens out of the way.... It is not fair to taxpayers. It is not fair to law-abiding citizens. It is not fair to the victims of crime,” she declared.

While federal law still prohibits providing Pell Grants to prisons, and only Congress can change that, the Obama administration has some flexibility to provide funds to a limited number of prisoners for research purposes. And with the Second Chance Pell Pilot, President Obama is putting that flexibility to good use. Because many ex-offenders are concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods, improving the earnings and employability prospects of ex-offenders could have a positive impact on these communities.

This pilot program comes at a time of renewed interest in exploring the potential of correctional education programs to facilitate re-entry efforts and to reduce the rate of recidivism. While funding for correctional education programs have been slashed in the past two decades, our prison population has grown precipitously. Indeed, America’s prison population dwarfs that of other nations with some 2.2 million people currently incarcerated.

Because many ex-offenders are concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods, improving the earnings and employability prospects of ex-offenders could have a positive impact on these communities.

At the same time, this outsized population has extremely low levels of educational attainment. In federal prison, 40 percent of inmates have no high school diploma and a mere 16 percent of prisoners in state facilities have graduated high school or received an equivalent credential. Without credentials, finding family sustaining employment on the outside can be a major strain, the effects of which are rarely confined to the former inmate. Instead, they become a burden felt throughout the community via increased rates of unemployment, poverty, and, ultimately, more crime.

But investing in education also holds the potential for positive ripple effects, especially for inmates with young children. Without access to several forms of public assistance, the economic stakes are high for the families of former inmates. If prisoners are able to use their time in jail productively to earn a post-secondary degree, they will be in a better position to support their families post-release at a time when all families are struggling with a rising cost of living for households. There are also intangible benefits: the experience of earning a post-secondary degree could begin a family tradition of attending college. Research shows that children raised by parents with college degrees are significantly more likely to be encouraged to attend college than children raised by parents without them.

Correctional education also promises to benefit communities by increasing ex-offenders’ earning potential and likelihood of civic participation, both of which will contribute to stimulating the local economy and improving housing conditions. Critics of the plan will say that we can't afford it. The Pell Grant program is already stretched thin, this line of argument goes, and if we are going to expand access to it, it should be for students who haven't committed crimes. But how much is it costing us every time an individual, having re-paid their debt to society, returns home only to discover they cannot get a job? According to the Rand Study, for every dollar invested in education programs for incarcerated students, four to five dollars are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.

It's easy to get caught up in arguments about what’s fair or who is more deserving. But with a rising number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods and the largest prison population in the developed world, these arguments are self-defeating for U.S. policymakers. Withholding educational opportunities to prisoners only sets them up for failure when they return to society. When it comes to today's ex-offenders, many are in need of a second chance—to get their lives on track, to build a stable future for their families, and to become economically and socially thriving citizens who contribute to their communities.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.