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The 1994 crime bill, formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, reframed the U.S. attitude towards criminal justice. Instead of compassion and rehabilitation, the focus shifted towards being “tough on crime.” Through numerous cuts and changes, the 1994 crime bill extended this “toughness” to the treatment of our incarcerated population. One target of the bill was education: After 1994, incarcerated individuals could no longer access Pell Grants.

Now, 25 years later, momentum is building to reverse this damaging policy. On Sept. 17, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration collaborated with the Unlock Higher Ed coalition to sponsor a briefing about restoring higher education opportunities to incarcerated students.

Pell Grants, which are federal subsidies for college education, help to unlock the potential of incarcerated individuals. Dr. Chris Beasley, the co-founder and president of the group Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates, discussed the role that higher education plays in rehabilitation. “It’s not enough to tell people to ‘stop being’ something. They need to have something to move toward,” he said.

The hope that higher education gives to incarcerated individuals translates into real world benefits.

The hope that higher education gives to incarcerated individuals translates into real world benefits. Research shows that the recidivism rates for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree drop by 28 percent. This lower recidivism rate can help to save state and federal corrections facilities $365 million.

According to Rick Raemish, former executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Pell Grants also improve the lives of the staff at correctional facilities, not just the incarcerated individuals they serve. “Pell Grants restore hope, and hope makes a safer and more secure environment for everyone in an institution—both [for] those incarcerated and the staff,” he said. “When we take Pell Grants away, we are punishing ourselves.”

Raemish went on to explain that when mentors inside correctional institutions have access to secondary education, they can help to influence others to improve themselves while incarcerated. Syrita Steib, the founder and executive director of Operation Restoration, echoed this point. She told stories from her own incarceration, highlighting how others would help maintain a quiet and nurturing environment for her to study in when she was receiving secondary education.

The benefits of restoring access to Pell Grants are clear. This one step would go a long way towards unlocking the potential of incarcerated individuals nationwide while simultaneously lowering the societal costs of recidivism. Urge your member of Congress to cosponsor the REAL Act (H.R. 2168/ S. 1074).

Update: Positive Steps Forward in House and Senate

On Sept. 26, Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN), Chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, introduced the Student Aid Improvement Act (S. 2557). Referred to as the “skinny or mini-HEA,” this bill would restore access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals. However, it would exclude those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

On Oct. 15, Rep. Bobby Scott (VA-03), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, proposed the College Affordability Act (H.R. 4647), which would fully reauthorize the Higher Education Act. This bill includes the language of the REAL Act and restores access to Pell Grants to all incarcerated individuals. It also adds institutional protections to ensure the highest quality of education for incarcerated individuals. These include: requiring institutions that would educate incarcerated individuals be accredited, ensuring that distance learning programs have the same standards as in person learning programs, and tracking the post-release outcome of incarcerated students.

We believe that all incarcerated individuals should have access to Pell Grants, regardless of their sentence. And will continue to lobby to ensure that the final version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization includes the restoration of Pell Grants to all incarcerated individuals.

Joe D'Antonio

Joe D'Antonio

Program Assistant, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity
Joe D’Antonio is the Program Assistant for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. His primary responsibilities include lobbying members of Congress, writing policy updates, and conducting legislative research.