Tucked into the 5,593 page relief package is a small victory for criminal justice reform advocates: Pell grants for prisoners.
A Conceit for COVID-19 with Infinite Inclusions
Many Americans continue to struggle for stability nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, Congress passed a second COVID-19 relief bill on Monday, December 21st. Predictably, the sections of the bill most immediately relevant to most are those on stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, and rent relief. However, the full text of the bill measures over 5,500 pages long. They outline a myriad of sections on issues unrelated to COVID-19. Hidden amidst these countless additions lies a victory for criminal justice advocates. After twenty-six years, the bill allows for Pell grants for prisoners.
Initial Exclusion and the 1994 Crime Bill
In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. As Erica L. Green of the New York Times pointed out, President-elect Joe Biden championed this proposal. The bill itself came under fire at the time and since for the role it played in furthering mass incarceration. Additionally, the bill eliminated pell grants for prisoners by preventing Pell grants from applying to prison education programs.
A relic of a historically “tough on crime” era of American criminal justice, this restriction draws attention to an ever-present question for reform advocates. Namely, should we use incarceration as a punitive tool or a rehabilitative one?
Pell Grants as Public Safety
Although simple incarceration allows for short-term faith in public safety, a vast majority of prisoners will eventually rejoin their communities. Thus, long-term public safety depends on the rehabilitation of offenders. However, the question remains: how do we ensure that the formerly incarcerated don’t commit crimes again?
One well-established way to decrease recidivism is to provide educational programs and job opportunities to inmates. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, inmates who participate in programming while incarcerated are 43% less likely to be re-arrested.
Despite the purportedly pro-public safety mentality that drove the introduction of the 1994 crime bill, the bill functionally did the opposite when it restricted Pell grants for prisoners. Without them, educational opportunities that could greatly decrease recidivism rates were financially unattainable for many inmates. In fact, one could argue that providing Pell grants to prisoners is, in and of it self, a public safety initiative.
Pell Grants in the Text of the Bill
The bill includes extensions of Pell grants to the incarcerated as a subsection of a portion on FAFSA simplification. Subsequently, inmates seeking higher education can qualify for Pell grants while incarcerated. The educational program in question must meet various requirements, as must the applicants. The program must provide, for example, transferable credits to an institution of higher learning.
Congress is also requiring feedback data on the implementation of these grants. Prisons will report a breakdown of their distribution within incarcerated communities. Congress will also seek data on how easily inmates can access and complete FAFSA applications.