Prison Reform
Obama Looks to Give Pell Grants to Prisoners

The Obama administration is announcing a new push in its overall effort to reform the nation’s prison system: making Pell grants available to the incarcerated, who are currently prohibited by a congressional ban from receiving such aid. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses […]

Some congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the ban. Meanwhile, administration officials have indicated they would use a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives the Education Department the authority to temporarily waive rules, such as the Pell-grant ban, as part of an experiment to study their effectiveness. […]

The administration’s plan could open the White House to new charges that it is subverting the will of Congress. The administration has been criticized for using executive powers to change immigration policy.

Helping prisoners get an education is a good idea, even if Pell grants might not be the best way to do it (alternative means might include awarding grants to colleges and vocational institutions to develop programs for prisoners). One reason that recidivism rates are so high is that many convicts are unemployable when they leave prison, and giving them the opportunity to pursue a college education could well make a difference there.

That said, it’s unfortunate that the Administration is choosing to take steps unilaterally rather than putting the idea before Congress. If the Administration’s lawyers are convinced they don’t need legislative action, it will still be advisable going forward to make sure key congressional figures and staffers are fully briefed and able to offer input. Some Republicans already oppose giving Pell grants to prisoners as it is, and pushing the change through unilaterally without input would risk politicizing a cause that’s been gaining bipartisan momentum.

This is Obama’s prison reform moment. The sentencing reform legislation currently pending in Congress is endorsed by both the president and House Speaker John Boehner. If Obama plays his cards right, this could be one of the few bipartisan achievements of his presidency and, if done right, prison reform could make a big difference in a lot of lives. Hopefully it passes with broad consensus rather than becoming a political spat.

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