WASHINGTON — If Congress ended a decades-old ban on providing financial aid to prison inmates, states could save hundreds of millions of dollars in correctional costs and boost employment rates, according to a study released Wednesday by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, both nonprofit groups.
“Restoring access to postsecondary education in prison offers substantial benefits to individuals who are incarcerated, to states, to employers and to communities by reducing crime, raising employment prospects and creating wealth in communities,” Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, said on a call with reporters Tuesday.
Congress barred inmates from accessing federal Pell grants to finance college courses in 1994, arguing it was unfair for prisoners to receive a share of limited financial aid dollars. Pell grants, a form of aid for low-income students, served as the primary source of funding for college programs in prisons. Without grant dollars, many facilities scaled back their educational offerings and few inmates could afford to pursue higher education.
Using state and federal data, authors of the report say about 463,000 prison inmates would be eligible for Pell grants if Congress repealed the ban. If half of that population took advantage of the grant, states could reduce recidivism rates and save an estimated $366 million a year in correctional spending. Those savings would skyrocket to $549 million a year if 75 percent of the Pell-eligible prison population tapped the grant.
In Maryland, the authors estimate the state could save $7.6 million a year in prison expenditures, while Virginia could lower corrections spending by $3.6 million according to the report.
Educated inmates would stand a better chance of obtaining employment upon release given the growing share of jobs that require postsecondary credentials or degrees, the report said. An increase in employment rates would translate into higher earnings that could be pumped back into the local economy. Authors of the report expect that combined wages earned by all formerly incarcerated people would increase by about $45.3 million during the first year of release.
Nearly two-thirds of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are academically eligible to enroll in higher-education programs, yet only 9 percent complete a postsecondary program, according to the report.
The higher-education programs that exist in state and federal facilities are largely funded through the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, an Obama-era initiative to help prisoners earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. Sixty-seven colleges and universities were selected in 2016 to work with more than 100 federal and state penitentiaries to enroll up to 12,000 inmates who qualify for Pell grants. But the pilot program is limited.
The report arrives weeks after President Donald Trump signed into law a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul bill, known as the First Step Act. The law shortens sentences for some offenders and expands job training for prisoners, but it failed to address financial aid limitations. Still, prison change advocates see the passage of the law as an inflection point that could bode well for lifting the Pell ban.
The leaders of the House and Senate education committees say they will address the ban in legislation reauthorizing the Higher Education Act of 1965, a federal law that governs almost every aspect of the sector.