The PJ Tatler

Education Department Admits It's Violating Law with Prisoner Pell Grants

The chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said the Obama administration is making yet another end run around Congress with its plan to make prisoners eligible for Pell grants.

The Department of Education said today that the Second Chance Pell Pilot program is intended to “create a fairer, more effective criminal justice system, reduce recidivism, and combat the impact of mass incarceration on communities.”

“High-quality correctional education — including postsecondary correctional education — has been shown to measurably reduce re-incarceration rates. By reducing recidivism, correctional education can ultimately save taxpayers money and create safer communities,” the DOE said, citing a RAND Corp.  study that showed “incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners.”

Congress stripped Pell eligibility from federal and stat prison inmates in 1994.

“This may be a worthwhile idea for some prisoners, but the administration absolutely does not have the authority to do this without approval from Congress, because the Higher Education Act prohibits prisoners from receiving Pell Grants,” HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said.

“The Obama Administration should focus on the existing prisoner job training and re-entry programs through the Departments of Justice and Labor for which Congress provided nearly $300 million last year,” Alexander added. “Congress can address changes to Pell grants as part of the Senate education committee’s work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this fall.”

The DOE acknowledged that Congress prohibited the Pell grants, but then simply noted that United States “currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world with more than 1.5 million prisoners.”

“As the President recently noted, for the money we currently spend on prison we could provide universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old in America or double the salary of every high school teacher in the country,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement. “America is a nation of second chances. 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.”

Alexander has already said reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is a fall priority, and his committee has held seven hearings on the law.