Obama Administration Details Plans for Prisoner Pell Grants, Other Reentry Measures

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday detailed a pilot project to give 12,000 inmates Pell grants to help with education costs, as well as a number of additional reentry measures for both juveniles and adults.

Under the Second Chance Pell Grant Program, 67 colleges and universities will partner with more than 100 federal and state adult penal institutions to enroll eligible students in educational and training programs both online and in facilities.

The goal is to give those who are incarcerated a better chance at successful reentry into their communities because they will have the education they need to find a job. Officials say they want to test whether participation in education programs increases with better access to financial aid.

In 1994, Congress prohibited inmates from receiving Pell grants. The administration is using its authority to experiment with alternative ways of giving financial aid to run the pilot, which likely will draw criticism from some Republican lawmakers.


Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said it was a mistake to eliminate Pell grants for those who are incarcerated and hopes the program will prompt a reversal during a panel discussion about reentry at the Center for American Progress.

“To me this is the heart of the question of a second chance. If we do criminal justice reform just through sentencing reform, we won’t have done enough,” King said. “Because we have to make sure that when folks leave, they actually leave with the education and skills and the opportunity to have a job, and the opportunity to get housing, and the opportunity to get an ID,  so that they’re able to be successful.”

Officials highlighted a 2013 federally-funded study by the RAND Corporation that found incarcerated individuals who participated in an education program were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not.

After the administration announced it would launch the pilot in July 2015, more than 200 educational institutions applied to be a part of it.

In addition, the Department of Labor on Friday announced $64.5 million in grants related to easing reentry, as well as helping young adults at-risk of entering the system.

Organizations in seven cities will test ways to help young adults ages 18 to 24 as they leave the corrections system find job training and employment.

Under another program, non-profit organizations and government agencies will provide mentoring and career training to youth, ages 16 to 21, who have juvenile records or are at risk of dropping out of high school or becoming involved in the criminal justice system.


Labor Secretary Tom Perez said more education and workforce opportunities for the formerly incarcerated are critical. But he said it’s also important to remember how scant the opportunities have been for many people in the first place.

“I have a very serious ambivalence about the use of the term second chance because I have met so any people who, for so many of them, there really wasn’t a first chance,” he said.

The administration positioned the day’s announcements as part of broader efforts to deepen reentry opportunities across education, housing, employment and other areas.

King said the juvenile justice system is another part of the justice system that reformers should be paying attention to when it comes to reentry.

“Too often kids in juvenile justice facilities don’t get quality educational experiences and don’t have a meaningful transition plan back to their school and community. That becomes then a pipeline to adult prison,” he said.

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