The Tricky Politics of Educating Prisoners

The Obama administration’s plan to offer Pell grants to inmates could test conservative support for criminal-justice reform.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Ask any advocate—liberal or conservative—of criminal-justice reform for the best way to shrink the nation’s overcrowded prisons, and one of the first answers you’ll likely hear is this: Keep the inmates currently in jail from coming back once they get out.

Helping prisoners prepare for re-entry into the real world by providing them education and job training while they’re still behind bars, the argument goes, gives them a better shot at finding jobs, and makes them less likely to return to criminal activity and wind up back in prison.

There’s a broad consensus on that point. But when the conversation turns to actually paying for such programs, the left-right coalition pushing for a major prison overhaul begins to fray. On Friday, the Obama administration will announce that for the first time since the tough-on-crime era of the early 1990s, federal funding for Pell grants will be made available for prisoners to take college courses. The political reaction to the move could give a strong indication of just how realistic the current push for new criminal-justice legislation is in Congress.

At a time when college is out-of-reach for so many working families, will the public support the use of taxpayer funds to educate criminals?

“That’s been the argument all the way along,” said Stephen Steuer, the executive director of the Correctional Education Association. Steuer and other supporters of prisoner education point to a 2013 Rand Corporation study finding that for every dollar spent on such programs, “you get $5 back in terms of reduced incarceration costs.” A Department of Education official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview Friday's announcement, cited the same Rand report, which found that prisoners who participated in correctional-education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years.

To a large degree, the array of conservative groups that are supporting criminal-justice reform—including the Koch brothers, FreedomWorks, and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform—are united behind a pair of priorities: reducing the exorbitant government cost of incarcerating so many people, and reducing the sheer number of crimes for which people can be imprisoned. That’s not to say that many conservatives aren’t focused on the racial inequities in the system, or the moral failings of a society that tears so many families apart for minor crimes, but reducing the costs of the system remains a top concern.

“There’s so much to be done that people who are talking about spending more money really need to get to the end of the list,” Norquist told me. “Because if you’re talking about reducing mandatory minimums, that doesn’t cost money. That saves money. If you’re talking about reducing the 4,000 federal laws and the several hundred thousand regulations that can send you to prison if you fill out the paperwork wrong, that doesn’t cost a penny.”

“Asking for more money up front is a distraction from what can be accomplished,” Norquist said.

The Obama administration is characterizing the Pell grant initiative, which was first reported Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal, as a “limited pilot program” that it is permitted to launch under a provision of the Higher Education Act. The administration won’t say how much it will cost, or whether the funds will in any way limit the Pell grants available to low-income families outside the prison system. Other important details are also unknown, Steuer said, such as how many inmates would be eligible whether people convicted of certain crimes would be excluded.

Congress banned inmates from getting Pell grants in 1994, and there’s already concern among conservatives that the administration is acting unilaterally rather than waiting for approval from Capitol Hill. “President Obama, through administrative actions, is risking conservative support for justice reform,” said Jason Pye, the justice director for FreedomWorks, the D.C.-based conservative advocacy group. “To avoid any controversy, as well as undermine prospects for reform this year, the administration should go through Congress to lift the ban on Pell grants.” A group of Democrats in the House has already introduced a bill to restore Pell grants for prisoners permanently, and many liberal lawmakers want criminal-justice legislation to include an infusion of funds for urban programs aimed at keeping teenagers out of jail in the first place.

Importantly, Pye did not object to the policy change as much as the process. “Education, work training and other rehabilitative programs implemented for eligible nonviolent offenders will have an upfront cost, but the reductions in recidivism could save taxpayers a lot of money,” he wrote in an email. He pointed to the example of Texas, which saved $2 billion by scrapping plans to build new prisons and used some of the money to boost spending on probation and other programs.

As far as restoring Pell grants for prisoners, increased access to education would play a crucial role in reducing a prisoner's of risk recidivist behavior. But policymakers could head off the cycle of crime and poverty before it starts through other reforms, such as providing parents more choice in their child’s education.

Norquist also praised the Texas example, but he said a restoration of Pell grants would have limited value if it were not paired with other reforms, like a relaxation of regulations and union rules that prevent convicted felons from getting licenses in many fields once they get out of prison. “I don’t care how much Pell grant education you’ve got if you can’t get a job because you don’t have a license, and you cant get a license because they say that felons can’t get a license,” Norquist said. “What was all the Pell money for?”

Conservatives seem willing to accept some new spending if they can be convinced that it will be outweighed by savings in the longterm. Starting Friday, it will be up to the Obama administration to make the case that giving Pell grants to prisoners adheres to that principle.