By Christopher Zoukis
In 1994, as part of the Clinton-era tough on crime “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” Congress stripped from the Higher Education Act of 1956 (HEA) prisoners’ eligibility for federal Pell grants for lower-income students.
But in July 2015, the Obama Department of Education (DOE) created a pilot “Second Chance” program under a different HEA section to finesse the Hill-imposed ban and bring financial aid to thousands of state and federal inmates through partnerships with scores of colleges.
Unless Congress repeals its ban, the program will lapse if DOE fails to renew it. In its first year, Trump’s DOE extended the Second Chance Pell grant program for the 2017-18 academic year, but its intentions for this year aren’t obvious. There are some hopeful signs for those who view continued Second Chance Pell grants as a useful tool for promoting rehabilitation of inmates before they are released from incarceration.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the encouraging signs come from President Trump himself. His State of the Union address in January outlined the goal of “reforming our prisons” by helping “former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”
In March, he issued a presidential proclamation recognizing April as Second Chance Month, noting in the process affording those who have been held accountable for crimes the chance to become productive citizens is a crucial factor in cutting crime rates and prison populations.
And President Trump has also often spoken favorably of apprenticeship and other vocational education programs, which are part of some Second Chance offerings; a variety of apprenticeship programs are sponsored by the federal government, including those supported by the Departments of Defense, Education, Labor, and Justice.
But this year, facing large numbers of contentious issues, Congress got off to a slow start in its attempts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. House Republicans had managed to pass a bill out of the Education and the Workforce Committee last December, H.R. 4508, the “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform,” known for short as the PROSPER Act. Thus far it hasn’t come to a House floor vote. It’s silent on the Second Chance Pell grants but would repeal any DOE grant program that remains unfunded.
The Senate made even less progress, where Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) — who opposed creating Second Chance grants in 2015 — earlier this year pronounced himself willing to consider making the program’s renewal part of the higher education reauthorization bill, saying Pell grants for prisoners “in the right circumstances is a good idea.”
But Alexander recently said his committee wouldn’t be able to produce a bill this year. Even if thus far elusive consensus should somehow be reached in that panel, the midterm elections-shortened calendar provides little time for working on it.
Instead, Pell grants for prisoner education, like other higher education law controversies, seems fated to hold over until next year. Given the political uncertainties over the shape of what the 116th Congress will be when it convenes next January, it’s virtually impossible at this point to predict what steps, if any, Congress will take on Pell grants for prisoners.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.