August 16, 2019
Detroit Free Press
By Greg Handel and Margaret diZerega
In 2017, Michigan recorded the lowest recidivism rates since the state began keeping track of the measure. Driving this is the growing realization that our society has not done a good job setting up formerly incarcerated people for success upon their release. When the announcement was made last year, Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, credited the decline to investments the state made in prison education, which makes perfect sense.
The ability to secure a job upon release contributes to increased public safety because people who are employed are far less likely to commit crimes than those who are not.
The state’s low unemployment rate has opened up more jobs opportunities for those who might have been overlooked in the past. But they will need the skills employers are seeking because virtually all jobs today require some form of postsecondary education.
It should come as little surprise then that people who receive some form of postsecondary education while in prison are far less likely to reoffend than those who don’t.
Unfortunately, there are state and federal barriers to postsecondary education in prison, such as the ban on Pell Grants for people in prison, set in place by Congress in 1994.
Today, an estimated 65% of the 1.5 million people in prison, are Pell Grant eligible but cannot access federal tuition assistance because of the Pell Grant ban, according a report by the Vera Institute called “Investing in Futures.” This barrier to access will stand in the way of making continued progress in reducing prison populations in Michigan and beyond.
Not only do accredited, postsecondary courses in prisons dramatically reduce recidivism rates, they also cut costly state prison expenditures. Right now, Michigan spends around $1.5 billion per year on its prisons. Vera’s report found reduced recidivism rates would save Michigan $10.7 million in decreased prison costs per year, while also providing employers with a larger pool of skilled workers to hire.
The report also found that expanding access to these courses also leads to safer and more prosperous communities for everyone by providing individuals with greater economic opportunity upon release from prison. For example, Vera estimates that lifting the ban would increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by an average of 10%, resulting in an increase in combined earnings among all formerly incarcerated people by $45.3 million during the first year of release alone.
This issue was part of an event that the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Vera Institute for Justice and Corrections to Colleges California co-hosted earlier this summer with support from Bank of America. Experts from Michigan’s business, higher education and corrections communities delved into the findings of Vera’s “Investing in Futures” and Corrections to Colleges California’s “Don’t Stop Now” reports. While the business community continues to rally in support of expanding access to postsecondary education, legislators from both sides of the aisle are mobilizing, too.
Just weeks ago, the Trump administration announced an expansion to the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, a U.S. Department of Education program that provides need-based tuition assistance to people in prison through a partnership with 65 colleges and universities in 27 states, including Michigan.
In addition, there are growing calls within Congress to repeal the Pell Grant ban either through the recent reintroduction of the REAL Act, or the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. We hope that Congress and the White House will seize the opportunity and make repealing the ban the next step in criminal justice reform.
Greg Handel is vice president of education and talent initiatives for the Detroit Regional Chamber. Margaret diZerega is project director at the Center for Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice