By Kenia Miranda Verdugo, Michelson 20MM Foundation (Originally published on 20mm.org)
1994 marked a pivotal year in the United State’s tough-on-crime history with the passing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, paving the way for the elimination of Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison while ending the majority of prison education programs. The legacy of this crime bill is considered to be one of the cornerstone statutes that accelerated mass incarceration. States and localities were incentivized, through federal funding, to build more jails and prisons and enact other punitive measures that also increased the number and length of prison sentences and reduced the possibility of early release for incarcerated individuals.
Although this crime bill happened 30 years ago, the monster machine this bill created and preserved continues to spin its wheels. The same funding streams that support enforcement activities as opposed to preventative measures continue to this day, albeit with tweaks. States still look to build new jails and prison facilities, even as crime rates remain near historic lows. Shifting away from the infrastructure created by the crime bill is not so simple, especially because much of the American public equates public safety with policing, prosecutions, jails, and prisons. Polling shows that despite significant drops in the crime rate, the majority of the general public believes that crime has gotten worse. In 2015, the Obama administration reinstated Pell Grants to a limited number of incarcerated students seeking college degrees. Findings from this pilot program further proved that education reduces recidivism.
Nearly 30 years later, as many as 700,000 individuals in prison will become eligible for financial aid thanks to Pell Grant reinstatement—a policy change that has the potential to open up new college opportunities all across the country. Studies show that higher education in prison decreases recidivism and increases the chance of becoming employed after release. Although educating incarcerated individuals has proven to have many benefits, the new access to financial aid also comes with unanswered questions and limitations.
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