Emily Mooney has this effective new commentary at Politico headlined “We Already Have a Tool That Lowers Crime, Saves Money and Shrinks the Prison Population.” Here are excerpts:
In America, individuals released from prison often return to crime. One study published in 2018, which analyzed data from 23 states, found that 37 percent of those released in 2012 returned to prison within three years. Of those released in 2010, 46 percent returned to prison within five years.
But the recidivism rate is far lower for prisoners who are able to get some postsecondary education while in prison. Fewer than 3 percent of graduates of [the Bard Prison Initiative], which is based in New York, return to prison. In contrast, well over 30 percent of individuals released from the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision return to custody within just three years. Other colleges with similar postsecondary education programs for prisoners also boast lower recidivism statistics than their state averages.
Providing education to the incarcerated is a win-win — it reduces future crime rates and saves public funds that otherwise would be spent keeping people in jail or prison. Unfortunately … the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act rendered anyone behind bars ineligible to receive federal Pell Grants. These grants, which give impoverished students financial aid for postsecondary education, had long been a critical funding mechanism for in-prison college programs. The Pell Grant ban put a virtual end to postsecondary education for prisoners who weren’t able to take advantage of privately funded programs like Bard’s or who didn’t have greater familial financial support.
This situation remained largely unchanged until the announcement of the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program in 2015. By expanding educational opportunities for some people behind bars, the program aimed to help individuals returning home acquire work, financially support their families and claim a second chance for a better life. The Pell Pilot Program currently allows around 10,000 students at selected institutions to receive Pell Grant funding each year to attend classes. While better than nothing, there would be hundreds of thousands of individuals who would be eligible to receive Pell Grant funding if the ban was lifted.
While at least part of the improved recidivism rates depends on personal characteristics of the people who seek out educational opportunities, the findings of multiple studies that attempt to account for these differences reinforce the conclusion that investing in postsecondary education for prisoners is one of the smartest ways to increase safety in our communities….
[F]ailing to invest in postsecondary education for prisoners means a lost opportunity to save taxpayer dollars at a time when state and local budgets are reeling from lost revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Incarcerating someone usually costs tens of thousands of dollars a year. If Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners was reinstated, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, the savings to states is estimated to be approximately $365.8 million per year in incarceration costs alone. This is likely an underestimate, since it does not include other direct and indirect costs of crime or potential benefits of educating prisoners, such as increased economic output.
This is forfeited money that could otherwise be available for investing in other taxpayer priorities. A 2016 brief by the Department of Education found that while per capita spending on corrections increased by almost half from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, the amount of state and local postsecondary education funding per full-time student plummeted.
On account of the potential cost-savings and public safety benefits, it is clear that federal policymakers of both parties should support reinstating Pell Grants. State policymakers, too, should look for ways to expand educational offerings within state and local correctional systems. Luckily, lawmakers are beginning to introduce legislation to support these goals. A repeal of the Pell Grant ban was included in an appropriations “minibus” bill passed out of the House at the end of July; it currently is waiting for action by the Senate. If successful, this measure promises a new era of learning — and safety.