The recent passage of the FIRST Step Act in Congress marked a high-water mark for the wave of evidence-based criminal justice reforms sweeping the nation.
However, as its name suggests, more work remains to be done in Congress and in state houses across the country to unravel policies that today are credited with causing more harm than good.
We’re proud to say that North Carolina is among these states working to advance reforms — such as expanding access to postsecondary education in prison — that have a proven track record of creating safer communities, cutting costs and increasing economic opportunity for people involved in the justice system.
For example, we recently co-sponsored House Bill 463, “Education/Job Readiness in Prisons & Jails,” which would make it easier for people in prison to further their education and ultimately secure a good-paying job upon release. The bill also allows flexibility in the types of educational opportunities that are offered in order to keep up with changing job markets.
Providing people access to quality postsecondary courses in prison is a commonsense, evidence-based reform that’s also a smart investment. And we’re proud that more than 40 of our House colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, agree and have signed on as sponsors. The companion bill in the Senate is also enjoying bipartisan support.
Before 1994, people in prison were eligible to apply for federal Pell grants so they could further their education while incarcerated, but this access virtually disappeared during the “tough on crime” regulations of the mid-’90s. When Congress adopted a ban on federal Pell grants for people in prison, it triggered a wave of similar legislation in states across the country, including in North Carolina.
We know now that this was the wrong move. Almost all new jobs in today’s economy require some form of postsecondary education. But despite the fact that the vast majority of people in prison are eligible to enroll in accredited higher-education curriculum, few can overcome the financial barriers. According to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, almost 10,000 people in North Carolina’s prisons are Pell-eligible but cannot access tuition assistance because of federal and state prohibitions. This lack of access continues our state’s cycle of poverty and incarceration.
Because higher education funding often relies on partnerships between the federal government and states, the U.S. Congress has a role to play in setting a course correction by repealing the federal ban on Pell grants for people in prison. But North Carolina must also do its part to expand access.
Doing so would increase employment among formerly incarcerated people by 10%, on average, according to the Vera and Georgetown report.
Most critically, people who receive some form of quality postsecondary education in prison are 48% less likely to re-offend than those who do not, according to a study from the RAND Corp. It costs less to educate someone than to incarcerate them, and in fact, North Carolina could stand to save around $8 million annually if the federal Pell ban is repealed, according to the Vera and Georgetown report. We can further enhance those savings by turning the “Education/Job Readiness in Prisons & Jails” into law.
It is in the interest of public safety, taxpayer dollars and everyone who is involved in our prison systems to provide interested and eligible incarcerated people the opportunity to make productive use of their time. At a time when businesses are struggling to find skilled labor, it’s also in the interest of employers to increase the state’s pool of eligible workers.
We hope all of our colleagues in the General Assembly will recognize these benefits and vote to pass the “Education/Job Readiness in Prisons & Jails” bills so we can help break the cycle of incarceration and the poverty that comes with it.