Biden’s Belated Education on Turning Inmates into Students

December is the month when we revisit the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a stony-hearted man who finally learns to be more generous and humane. That tale may strike home in the Oval Office, because Joe Biden sometimes resembles the reformed Scrooge in trying to make up for his past harshness.

Biden was the chief author of the 1994 crime bill, which was part of a broad push to increase penalties for lawbreakers. That measure contributed to the mass incarceration boom of the 1990s. At the same time, the law took away one important method of keeping inmates released from prison from returning to prison.

In Congress, tough-on-crime politicians raged against the practice of providing federal college funds known as Pell Grants to prisoners who wanted to pursue higher education.

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., portrayed the expense as a waste and an injustice: “Citizens who are struggling to meet their children’s skyrocketing tuition costs have a right to be outraged when the child of a police officer in their community can’t get a Pell grant but a criminal the police officer sends to prison can.”

In fact, giving grants to inmates didn’t reduce the funds available to their students. But no matter. The Biden crime bill, proudly signed by Bill Clinton, zeroed out Pell Grants for prison inmates. Better, apparently, that they should spend their time making license plates and pumping iron than solving equations and writing term papers.

Biden has since expressed remorse for his role in passing the crime bill, which he described as “a big mistake.” The provision on Pell Grants certainly was. It’s hard to think of a policy more self-defeating than preventing prisoners from using their time behind bars to discipline their minds and acquire useful knowledge.

Under Barack Obama, the Education Department found a way to offer such financial aid through an experimental initiative called Second Chance Pell. The department expanded the program under Donald Trump, who also signed legislation repealing the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students.

The change, tucked into the $900 billion pandemic relief package approved last December, won’t take effect until 2023. In the meantime, the Biden administration has expanded Second Chance to cover some 200 colleges, up from 131 today. Thanks to separate legislation, inmates will also get more access to vocational training programs, such as carpentry and masonry.

These changes will sound like gross extravagance to anyone who thinks incarceration should maximize the misery of criminals. The problem with that approach is that 95% of those in prison today will return to our midst — having been changed, for better or worse, by their time behind bars.

Law-abiding citizens will be safer if former inmates have credentials that make them employable, giving them a good alternative to robbing convenience stores or dealing drugs.

“The cost-benefit of this does not take a math genius to figure out,” then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2015, launching the Second Chance Pell program. “We lock folks up here, $35-40,000 every single year. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 each year.”

That $35-40,000, of course, does not include the cost of the harm done to innocent people by freed inmates who revert to crime.

Education is a reliable way to curb recidivism. A study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that prisoners who take post-secondary courses are 48% less likely to return to prison than those who don’t — saving $5 for every dollar invested. They are more likely to find jobs after their release.

It also noted, “Prisons with postsecondary education programs have fewer violent incidents than prisons without them, creating safer working conditions for staff and safer living environments for incarcerated people.”

Employers may also profit from these programs. In the tight labor market, more businesses are willing to consider applicants they once would have rejected out of hand. Honest Jobs, which helps people with criminal records, “had 158 companies register for its site from May to July, roughly doubling its ranks of active employers,” reports Bloomberg. “New York City-based nonprofit Fortune Society says placements in April through June were up 14% from the same period last year.”

The worst prisons are fully capable of exacting retribution against their occupants. But correctional institutions are far more valuable if they can also give inmates the means to live law-abiding lives once they have paid their debt to society.

Every felon who leaves prison gets a second chance. The question is: a second chance to do what?

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Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.