President Barack Obama has continued to make national headlines over the last month with a large push for drug law reform, including a bold pardon of 46 prisoners who were incarcerated for drug-related offenses.
Coupled with new legislation that allows some of the currently incarcerated to apply for federal Pell Grants, —a section of student federal aid —drug reform could help students and prisoners to further their education and their lives.
In July, the U.S. Department of Education launched its Second Chance Pell Pilot Program that would allow prisoners who meet Title IV qualifications and are eligible for release within five years to apply for the grants. These grants would then go toward their continued education.
“America is a nation of second chances. Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Newsweek.
And if we plan to follow this second chance mentality for the previously incarcerated, education, according to a 2005 Columbia University study, is one of the only proven ways of improving life beyond bars.
The study claimed “schooling significantly reduces criminal activity.” The connection is simple—if those currently incarcerated are able to receive Pell Grants to further their education, crime rates could decrease and the rate of return would see an extreme decline.
A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation (commissioned by the Department of Justice) found that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years.
Just because someone is a criminal does not mean they should be barred from contributing to society upon their release.
A common opposition to the new legislation is that there is only a finite amount of money in the pool for Pell Grants, money awarded to undergraduates based on need when completing FAFSA.
That opposition falls short, however, after evidence has been shown that clearly states the benefits of educating those behind bars. Is a slightly reduced college debt truly worth the increased detriments to society?
It is paramount that as a society we think of the long-term benefits of programs like the Second Chance Pell Pilot—by giving a little, we can gain a lot for those in vulnerable positions.
Obama’s second series of actions has less to do with students and more to do with improved quality of life for those in the justice system, which in turn, affects us as a society. By a series of pardons and the opening of a discussion on reform, the president has faced a continually growing issue of drug offenders in the federal justice system.
Beyond the pardon of 46 people imprisoned for nonviolent drug crimes, Obama has made an overhaul of the prison system a top priority, according to CNN.
“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it,” Obama said in Philadelphia in July for the NAACP convention before visiting a federal prison in Oklahoma, becoming the first sitting president to do so.
Other reform Obama said he would push for include an overhaul of sentencing laws that have allowed for today’s high incarceration numbers and the restoration of voting rights to felons who have served their time. He also suggested the reduction or elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing and a desire to ban employers from asking applicants about prior convictions.
These proposed reforms are incredibly important because in many ways they are companions to legislation like the Second Chance Pell Pilot. While the Pilot program will allow those incarcerated to begin to help themselves, legislation on the other proposed topics will help avoid incarcerations and help beyond prison walls as well.
The reforms enacted recently by the Obama administration are exactly the kinds of changes that need to take place in the United States justice system. By allowing prisoners to become students, as well as overhauling the prison system, Americans will experience a more productive life once outside of prison walls.
Vince Bellino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.