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Removing education barriers is key to success for formerly incarcerated people

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The United States has the largest incarceration system in the world. Yet, the use of incarceration as the first line of defense against public and individual harm has proved to be woefully ineffective. Of the 1.5 million people in our nation’s prisons, 9 out of 10 will eventually be released to their home communities and nearly three-quarters of those released will return to prison within three years having had little or no support to help them succeed both pre- and post-release. Most people who are damaged by the revolving door syndrome, which has been fed by mass punishment, come from communities of color. During the era of mass incarceration, which began shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Black men and women have borne the brunt of American criminal legal system, at rates wildly disproportionate to our white counterparts.

Policymakers, academics and criminal-justice reformers all agree that access to education is both a front-end and back-end tool that decreases crime, increases social and economic mobility and supports informed, engaged citizenship. Not only is high-quality education effective, it is a lot less expensive than the cost of mass incarceration. Even though every dollar invested in education returns over two dollars to taxpayers in saved incarceration costs, investment in prisons has grown at three times the rate of investment in K-12 education.

{mosads}The legal protections that opened the door for millions of black doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers, public servants and other professionals are under vigorous scrutiny and attack. Broad admissions criteria for public colleges and universities and affirmative action in college admissions are increasingly under attack. Existing affirmative action cases in Massachusetts and California, the Trump administration’s obliteration of President Obama’s guidance on race in admissions and the Justice Department inquiries at Harvard and Yale are in lock step with a pattern of state actions chipping away at the Civil Rights Act. With the government trending toward making access to college more difficult for free people of color, the challenge of college access for aspiring students who are incarcerated or who have criminal justice histories becomes exponential.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) is working on three bills that would move us closer to the values of fairness and equity. Last month, he introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act would reinstate incarcerated students’ eligibility for federal Pell Grants, which have been the bedrock on which low- and middle-income students have attained post-secondary education since the 1960s. He also plans to introduce related legislation, including the Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons (PREP) Act, would introduce quality control for prison education programs. A third bill, the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act, would ensure that when people with criminal convictions apply for admission to college they are evaluated by their academic promise, not criminal conviction status. A recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality demonstrates that these measures would benefit individuals, their families and local economies.

Matthew Charles and Catherine Toney were recently released due to provisions in the First Step Act and both were lucky enough to gain the attention of the media through celebrities. But it will take more than Kim Kardashian’s personal intervention for Charles or Jared Kushner’s phone call to Walmart on behalf of Toney to solve the problems of employment, housing and education equity for nearly 70 million U.S. residents who have a criminal record on file, 19 million of which are felonies. A strategy that focuses on one-to-one celebrity aide is not tenable.

To be sure, investment in education is just one piece of the sweeping reforms needed in the U.S. criminal legal system. But certifying access to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated people could be the beginning of a reckoning long overdue — a reckoning that acknowledges and course corrects the harms of structural racism. Arguments to the contrary must be carefully questioned.

The Rev., Vivian D. Nixon is executive director of College & Community Fellowship, a nonprofit dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees so that they, their families, and their communities can thrive. 

Tags Brian Schatz Jared Kushner Prison education

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