Expand college-in-prison programs — then give participants time off their sentences
Over the past four decades, the United States doubled down on a “tough on crime” philosophy. It worked. We raced ahead as the world’s leader in incarceration, even as violent crime declined. We doled out life sentences to one out of every 2,000 people. Then, in 1994, President Clinton banned the use of federal Pell grants to fund higher education for people in prison, forcing the vast majority of prison higher education programs to close.Eighty-three percent of people released from prison are rearrested within a decade.
Finally, the conversation is changing. A bipartisan cadre of governors and congressional representatives are advocating for more forgiving, rehabilitative prison policies. The Trump administration is working to roll back Clinton’s zero-tolerance crime bill by expanding President Obama’s “Second Chance Pell” experiment, which funds college courses in a select few prisons.
It’s long overdue. Second Chance Pell currently funds college for only 12,000 inmates a year — or 0.5 percent of the 2.2 million incarcerated people. Expanding the program to reach more of the estimated 463,000 Pell-eligible people behind bars could be transformative.
As the debate over whether to lift Clinton’s Pell ban altogether generates renewed attention in Congress, though, we must remember that education alone will not undo the full damage of the tough-on-crime era. But, through a minor policy shift, states can leverage the swell of support for prison education to counteract lengthy sentencing practices — ensuring the expansion of Second Chance Pell also shrinks the overall prison population.
So-called “earned time credit,” which gives students who participate in educational programs time off of their sentences, is taking hold in a growing number of states. Earned time credit policies incentivize incarcerated learners to participate in educational programming, ensuring more of the 95 percent of prisoners who will eventually reenter society do so with the backing of education, while also turning the tide on mass incarceration and potentially saving taxpayers money through reduced recidivism costs. Such policies cost nothing to implement, and they signal a state’s recognition that vengefully long sentences do nothing to help perpetrators, victims, or society at large.
Earned time credit has the dual effect of reducing costs and improving outcomes, shortening students’ time behind bars while harnessing the power of education to make it less likely that they will reoffend after release. In states such as Washington and Oregon, these policies have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.
These efforts are supported by a strong evidence base: a 2013 meta-analysis of correctional education programs found that education reduces the likelihood of recidivism, and increases post-release job placement, by about 13 percent. For every dollar spent on correctional education, researchers estimate that states save five dollars on reincarceration costs. And tying education to early release amplifies these benefits even further, allowing students to begin contributing to the outside world sooner.
Sentence lengths have ballooned over the past few decades, driving the mass incarceration crisis. To counter the systemic damage of four decades of retributive criminal justice, we have to give incarcerated learners more than degrees — we have to give more of them a chance to apply what they have learned to life on the outside.
Expanding earned time credit programs, and other opportunities for accelerated release, also hold potential to ignite a broader conversation on how sentencing practices can recognize human potential for rehabilitation. Students who reenter society early with the support of high-quality education, equipped to succeed and to advocate for themselves, can begin to take down the myth that long sentences are necessary for public safety.
Skeptics question whether incarcerated learners should have access to free education, when there never seems to be enough to go around for even “rule followers.” But, one of the most important ways we can ensure the government can invest in programs that serve people on the outside, such as Pell, is to finally tackle the inconceivable amount of money we spend locking people up.
Prison education is an investment that pays off many times over, as incarcerated students discover their untapped potential, leave prison ready to contribute meaningfully to society, and build lives that keep them from winding up back behind bars. If we can lower prison spending, we can create a bigger pie that will better serve all students.
Most importantly, it’s a mistake to mark people in prison as categorically unworthy. Over the past several years, I have worked with incarcerated learners across the country; their stories are often heartbreaking, but their grit, dedication and thirst for opportunity are unparalleled. Many have spent their lives navigating the social injustices that make some far more likely to wind up behind bars than others, and are now saddled with such lengthy sentences that they worry they will never have the chance to do more.
We’re writing off an unacceptable amount of human potential if we define 2.2 million people by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
Arti Finn is the co-founder of American Prison Data Systems, a public benefits corporation working to promote free and ethical education options for incarcerated learners.