How To Give Incarcerated People A Real Second Chance

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan once said the justice “system was premised on a faith in rehabilitation,” one of the five purposes of the system. However, a new report shows how the system falls short in this goal with one of the best tools at its disposal: education. This research finds that 94% of all incarcerated individuals will eventually be released—about 700,000 each year—but with educational attainment rates and literacy and numeracy proficiency skill levels much lower than the general population, making reentry into society more difficult.

Completing a postsecondary degree or credential while incarcerated can have a major impact on a person’s trajectory post-release. Research has already shown those who participate in postsecondary programs have a lower rate of recidivism. Other studies have found that correctional education improved the chances of finding employment by 13%.

This research builds on that work. First, it finds that there is a significant gap between incarcerated people and the general public in literacy and numeracy proficiency. This is also true for those within two years of reentry, making them even more disadvantaged when seeking employment. However, these gaps can be closed. On average, those who complete a degree or certificate increased their literacy and numeracy scores by 26 and 38 points respectively, compared to incarcerated individuals who do not. Not only does that close the gap between them and the general public, the average scores exceed them.

The problem is there are not enough people enrolled in correctional education programs. Only 21% of adults in the federal and state population were enrolled in a postsecondary education program. But 55% of the prison population are academically eligible to be enrolled in these programs. Another study predicted that if just half of eligible adults enrolled, employment for incarcerated individuals would increase by 10%. Beyond that, we know the economic impacts of a college credential, both for individuals and the economy. Layered with the existing research, this study begs the question why more are not given the positive effects.

Due to financial constraints, the corrections system doesn’t always provide postsecondary education programs. However, this is a shift. Until the early 1990s, the federal government allowed incarcerated adults access to the Pell Grant—its primary program to lower the cost of college for low-income students. Then Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, written by then-Senator Joe Biden and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, banning incarcerated people access to Pell Grants. While this was just a sliver of the total Pell pot of money, it removed a significant portion of the correctional education funding, essentially pulling the plug on higher education in prisons.

Luckily, many in power have recognized this mistake and the devastation of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on Black men. Bipartisan legislators have called for “Second Chance Pell,” the reversal of this ban, and have introduced legislation to do so, including the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, among others. House Democrats also included the reversal in their comprehensive revamp to higher education. Many Democratic presidential candidates have signed on to these bills or have proposed it themselves. Notably missing from that is the author of the ban, former Vice President Biden, who has only proposed restoring eligibility for formerly incarcerated individuals—something already allowed.

Our justice system should be about rehabilitation, just as Justice Kagan said. It is clear education is one of the best tools we have to do so. Nearly all incarcerated individuals will one day not be incarcerated. It is unwise for us to neglect them and not set them up for a successful reintegration into society. Investing in people—all of our people—will help us take a step to end the cycle of recidivism and create a more just world. It’s time for Congress to correct this mistake and restore the second chance our justice system is supposed to promise.

I am an education policy wonk dedicated to improving education for every student. I currently work at New America on federal higher education policy as a Senior Advisor ...