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White House Announces Re-entry Programs for Formerly Incarcerated People

White House Announces Re-entry Programs for Formerly Incarcerated People

On June 24, the White House announced a series of new and continuing programs to expand educational opportunities and facilitate reentry for people who have been incarcerated.

One of the most notable parts of the Obama administration’s announcement was the news that the Department of Education (DOE) has made considerable progress on its Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, originally announced last year. This $30 million program will offer Pell Grants to roughly 12,000 incarcerated individuals at 141 federal and state correctional institutions in order to pursue a two- or four-year college degree. DOE has also identified 67 colleges and universities that will accept the Second Chance Pell Grants and, in return, these institutions will provide recipients with high-quality educational programming aimed at preparing them for successful reentry once they are released.

The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program comes in response to growing evidence demonstrating that access to educational opportunities in prison are associated with much lower levels of recidivism after release. For example, a 2013 report by the RAND Corporation found that individuals who participated in correctional education while in prison were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release than those who did not complete such programming. That report also noted that correctional education increased the likelihood of finding work after release by 13 percent.

The Jewish tradition teaches that all people are fallible (“There is none on earth so righteous as to only do good and never sin” – Ecclesiastes 7:20), and also that wrongdoing should be met with t’shuvah, that is, with repentance and return to the righteous path. But, as the U.S. criminal justice system currently operates, people who have made a mistake and served their time face considerable barriers to reentry once they are released and often find themselves caught in a cycle of incarceration. Initiatives like the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program are necessary to overcome the far-reaching and long-lasting consequences of incarceration and to help people who were formerly incarcerated to become meaningful and productive members of society.

While this is a welcome and important first step to expanding opportunities for people in prison, the White House’s ability to expand the Second Chance Pell program in the coming years is hampered by significant legal obstacles. In 1994, Congress approved and President Clinton signed into law a ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals. The current program is only permitted under a provision in the law that allows the Secretary of Education to temporarily waive the ban for trial programs. Congressional action will ultimately be necessary overturn that prohibition.

The administration has also unveiled a number of other significant reentry initiatives in the past several weeks, including tens of millions of dollars in grants from the Department of Labor to fund job training and transition-to-employment programs for formerly incarcerated people, Department of Housing and Urban Development/Department of Justice funding to break the cycle of homelessness and incarceration as well as guidance for colleges and universities to “ban the box” and take other steps to increase access to higher education for people with criminal histories. Additionally, the White House has successfully recruited dozens of colleges and universities to take its Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge to implement more equitable admissions practices.

For more information about the Reform Movement’s work to end mass incarceration and reform the criminal justice system, visit www.rac.org/criminal-justice.

Image courtesy of Flickr/Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington

Adam Waters is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He grew up in Coral Springs, FL, and was a member of Temple Beth Orr. Adam graduated from Brown University.

Adam Waters

Published: 6/29/2016