Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the administration's new Second Chance Pell Pilot program during a visit Friday to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, Maryland.Now, this makes all kinds of sense. Indeed, my home state of New York introduced a similar program last year, based on a successful model:
"America is a nation of second chances," Duncan said. "Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are. It can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers."
The program will allow, on a temporary basis, federal grants to be used to cover college costs for prisoners for the first time since Congress excluded them from student aid in 1994. It will last three to five years and be open to prisoners who are eligible for release, particularly within the next five years. Inmates could be eligible for the money as early as the fall of 2016.
Pell grants are for low-income people and do not have to be repaid.
The plan is based on the Bard Prison Initiative, a program created at Bard College in 1999. Since its inception, the Bard Prison Initiative has educated 500 inmates and awarded degrees to 250 people. Of those who have completed the program, only 4 percent have returned to the criminal justice system.Look, it's really quite simple, and the problem has been with us perennially. (Seriously, read Hugo's Les Miserables. Hell, even the musical makes the point.) What do you do with people when their incarceration ends? Let them drift with no credentials, nothing to alleviate their condition, and then feign virtuous surprise when they drift back into crime?
Upon release, prisoners often have trouble reentering society. A criminal record is a difficult stigma to shed. Many businesses are unwilling to hire them. Housing opportunities can be few and far between. If not addressed, these obstacles increase the likelihood that they will find themselves caught up in the system again within three years.
Education decreases these odds. For example, the Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco helps those in jail obtain their high school diploma or GED with great success. Five Keys graduates have a recidivism rate of 44 percent, compared to their fellow inmates’ rate of 68 percent. The dramatic drop in recidivism has saved San Francisco $1.5 million a year incarceration expenses.
According to 2015 Congressional Research Report, "nearly three-quarters of offenders released in 2005 came back into contact with the criminal justice system, and more than half returned to prison either after being convicted for a new crime of for violating the conditions of their release." Lack of education is a major factor in predicting recidivism.
The report points out that 95% of the incarcerated population will be released one day. So, yeah, anything that may help them find a new place in society, rather than return to the old is worth trying.
The old game is played out. The retribution rationale for the criminal justice system has its place, but doesn't answer the pragmatic question of how to treat an offender who has served his or her time. That's why a rehabilitative component also has its place.
Yesterday the Obama Administration brought a new tool into that all-too-often disparaged component of the criminal justice system. Good for them, and for us.