Friday, August 02, 2019

Pell Grants for Prisoners? @JoeBiden, this is a good idea

From transcript of Second Democratic Debate, night 2.

TAPPER: Welcome back to the CNN Democratic presidential debate. We are live from Detroit.
I want to turn now to criminal justice. Mr. Vice President, Senator Booker called your new criminal justice reform plan, quote, "an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country," unquote. Why is Senator Booker wrong?
BIDEN: Well, I don't -- I think he is wrong. I think we should work together. He has a similar plan. I think that we should change the way we look at prisons.
Right now, we're in a situation where, when someone is convicted of a drug crime, they end up going to jail and to prison. They should be going to rehabilitation. They shouldn't be going to prison. When in prison, they should be learning to read and write and not just sit in there and learn how to be better criminals.
And when they get out of prison, they should be in a situation where they have access to everything they would have had before, including Pell grants for education, including making sure that they're able to have housing, public housing, including they have all the opportunities that were available to them because we want them to become better citizens.

Vice President Biden seems to be mixed up on the details. According to a U.S. Department of Education Feb. 2019 fact sheet, once you "get out of prison" a person with a conviction generally is eligible for Pell grants and other assistance. (Exceptions: (1) Your adult conviction was for possessing or selling drugs when you were receiving federal financial aid.  You can become eligible --  pass two unannounced drug tests from a drug rehabilitation program or complete an approved drug program. (2) Your conviction was for a "sexual offense" and you were subject to involuntary civil commitment post conviction.) Not surprisingly, the Vice President's "Criminal Justice" plan claims it would enable "formerly incarcerated persons" to become eligible for Pell grants -- but that is the current law.

"In fact," as Vice President Biden likes to say, one of the infamous provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill said people currently in state or federal prison are not eligible for Pell grants (Section 20411. Awards of Pell Grants to Prisoners Prohibited. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Public Law 103-322, Sept. 13, 1994 (20 U.S.C. 1070a(b)(6))).  

However, an Obama Administration reform created a "Second Chance Pell" experimental program for persons in prison. According to a Department of Education FAQ on Second Chance Pell in April 2019, "so far this award year (July 1, 2018- June 30, 2019) there are currently 10,048 students receiving Federal Pell Grant funds from 64 institutions." That does not seem to be an impressively large number of prisoners studying at the college level out of an state and federal prison population of 1.5 million (2016).

This program was based on a 2013 RAND Corporation study, funded by the Justice Department:

Key Findings: Correctional Education Improves Inmates' Outcomes after Release

  • Correctional education improves inmates' chances of not returning to prison.
  • Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. This translates to a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points.
  • It may improve their chances of obtaining employment after release. The odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education was 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not participate in correctional education.
  • Inmates exposed to computer-assisted instruction learned slightly more in reading and substantially more in math in the same amount of instructional time.
  • Providing correctional education can be cost-effective when it comes to reducing recidivism

A program with such benefits should be expanded. It would be great if Vice President Biden's Pell Grant reforms zeroed in on what actually needed to be fixed!

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