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Guest column, Nathan Deal: Why prisoners should have access to Pell grants, post-secondary education
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Former Governor Nathan Deal speaks Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, at the dedication of the new Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta. - photo by Scott Rogers

As a member of Congress and especially as governor of Georgia, I witnessed firsthand the power of our criminal justice system to change lives, and not always for the better.  

Right now, more people than ever before are discussing the sweeping reforms necessary to begin building a more just and equitable society, and I believe that reimagining America’s prisons must be a central piece of those efforts.  

Specifically, I believe that lifting the federal ban on Pell grants for people in prison is the next step necessary in order to ensure all incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to access life-changing education. 

Beginning in June of last year, I served as chair of the Task Force on Federal Priorities, which brought together 14 diverse government officials as the first member task force convened by the Council on Criminal Justice in order to build on the momentum of the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act and identify the actionable, politically viable steps that the federal government can take now to produce the greatest improvements in public safety and the administration of justice.  

In May we published “Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety & Justice,” which includes 15 consensus recommendations that create a roadmap for Congress and the administration. Although our diverse panel did not agree on everything, the report reflects our deep and shared commitment to protecting the safety and liberty of all Americans. 

When the task force began this work last year, we could hardly have anticipated how the world would change. I believed then that it was critical to follow up on the gains accomplished by the FIRST STEP Act, but today the proposals in our report seem far more urgent.  

COVID-19 has illustrated in deadly fashion the weaknesses of our criminal justice system and the vulnerabilities of those who live and work within it. 

I strongly believe that one of the areas in which we can make the greatest impact is making sure that all incarcerated people have access to postsecondary education. Nearly 60% of people who serve time do not complete an educational program while in prison, and only 9% complete a postsecondary education program during their incarceration. One key reason for this gap is a lack of funding.  

The vast majority of postsecondary educational programs for incarcerated individuals would be supported by Pell grants, but the 1994 Crime Bill removed access to these benefits. 

As our report outlines, prison-based education can substantially improve the prospects of people returning to society. A meta-analysis that was conducted by RAND in 2013 and updated in 2018 found that incarcerated individuals who took part in postsecondary education programs were 48% less likely to recidivate than those who did not participate in such programs.  

The study, spanning the period between 1980 and 2017, also found that the odds of being employed after incarceration were 12% higher for people who had taken part in any vocational or educational programming while in prison.  

But it is hard to question the return for public safety: By reducing recidivism, taxpayers save $5 for every $1 spent on prison education. Education programs make prisons safer too, for those incarcerated and also for correctional officers and other staff. 

Reflecting growing recognition of the benefits of correctional education to incarcerated people and their families and communities, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative in 2015 to provide need-based Pell grants to select individuals imprisoned in state and federal facilities.  

The initiative recently expanded to bring the total number of sites offering courses to 130 colleges in 42 states, including five schools in Georgia. 

I support expanding this pilot effort and restoring Pell eligibility for all eligible people in prison. Greater educational attainment by those behind bars would improve public safety, help fill gaps in the nation’s workforce and improve economic potential for people and their families.  

Like the other 14 recommendations endorsed by the Task Force, lifting the ban on Pell grants for people in prison is an actionable, politically viable step that the federal government can take now to improve public safety and make the administration of justice more equitable. 

As I watch my fellow Georgians and Americans rise up to confront both a global pandemic and the crisis of racism in America, I hope we can use this profound sense of urgency to sharpen our focus on criminal justice reforms that are anchored in facts, evidence and fundamental principles of justice.  

Reform won’t be easy, but we can and must use this pivotal moment in time to work for a more fair and effective federal system that provides safety and justice for all. 

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