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The next step for justice reform: Ending the ban on federal Pell Grants for eligible students behind bars


The passage of the FIRST STEP Act was a significant accomplishment in criminal justice reform—and an indicator of the strength of the bipartisan will to fix what’s broken in our system. Supporters as ideologically diverse as the American Conservative Union Foundation and the ACLU applauded when, just days before Christmas, President Trump signed into law reforms that promise a more just and rehabilitative federal prison system.

Now, while there is continuing momentum toward transforming lives and protecting communities through restorative criminal justice reform, it’s time to take the next step: Ending the ban on federal Pell Grants for eligible students behind bars.

{mosads}With the overhaul of the Higher Education Act under current discussion, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and his colleagues have a unique opportunity to recast the key law governing federal financial aid and other higher education programs. Recently, Alexander acknowledged he is considering a wide-range of reforms, including Pell Grants for prisoners, as part of his commitment to work with senators on both sides of the aisle.

Restoring access to higher education behind bars will create safer prisons and communities; prison education programs are shown to reduce prison violence and recidivism. It will also help tap into the God-given potential of men and women who, despite their choices in the past, can make significant future contributions to their families and communities. A 2013 study by RAND indicates that incarcerated people who participate in education programs are 43 percent less likely to recidivate and 21 percent more likely to gain employment upon release than those who do not.

Prison education also saves taxpayer dollars. Every dollar invested in correctional education is estimated to save nearly $5 in reincarceration costs over three years. That doesn’t even account for the additional savings gained from the economic output of formerly incarcerated people rejoining the workforce. And there is no dollar figure that can be placed on the reduction of future victims and the strengthening of families that otherwise would have been fractured by more crime and incarceration.

That’s why we implore lawmakers to lift the ban on federal Pell Grants for all students behind bars, regardless of the type of offense that brought them to prison. Let’s be clear: the ban punishes the past and the future. Lifting the ban, however, can dramatically change the person who is returning home.

Ninety-five percent of prisoners will one day be released. If someone wants to put in the work to become law-abiding, responsible citizen, it’s in society’s best interest to help provide that opportunity. Do we want to bring home good neighbors or double down on punitive policies that only lead to more crime and violence?

For Jesse Wiese, who committed a crime while deeply depressed as a young adult, a prison sentence was a critical chance to get his life back on the right track. While still incarcerated, he graduated with honors from Moody Bible Institute, an associate member of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, and began studying to take the LSAT.

After prison, Jesse graduated magna cum laude from law school, and today he advances Prison Fellowship’s national strategy to expand programs that transform the lives of men and women in prison. He says, “I’m living proof that those in prison can be rehabilitated.” His story is a testament to the power of redemption and what’s possible when we invest in second chances.

Currently, just 64 correctional facility and college or university partnerships are authorized through the administration’s Second Chance Pell Pilot to provide Pell Grants for prisoners to pursue college coursework. Some of these are provided by Christian institutions. The pilot is a worthwhile initiative, but it barely begins to reap the potential benefits of lower recidivism, lower incarceration rates, and improved tax revenues from the participation of gainfully employed returning citizens in the local economy. If Pell eligibility were restored for prisoners, more institutions, including faith-based colleges and universities, would have increased capacity to start or expand prison education programs, and these social benefits would multiply.

As the Senate HELP and House Education and Labor committees move forward with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we hope they will seize the opportunity to unlock the God-given potential of men and women behind bars, strengthen families, and make America safer by opening the door for incarcerated learners to improve their lives.

Heather Rice-Minus is the vice president of government affairs for Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. Shapri D. LoMaglio is the senior vice president for government and external relations at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

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