Report: Connecticut could save $3.5M yearly if inmates got Pell Grants

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A report released by the Vera Institute of Justice this week suggests Connecticut would save at least $3,585,115 yearly if a 24-year-old ban on federal Pell Grants for inmates was lifted.

Vera, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, worked with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality to compile the report.

Using research and results from the Second Chance Pell program that former President Barack Obama launched in 2015, authors determined inmates who receive higher education are less likely to fight in prison, less likely to return to prison upon release and more likely to gain employment.

However, while 64 percent of people in state prisons have earned a high school diploma or GED and could enroll in higher education, just 9 percent get a certificate from a college or trade school while incarcerated, largely because they can’t afford it.

“More than 90 percent of those incarcerated will eventually be released, and more than two-thirds of them will return within three years,” said Vera Project Director Margaret diZerega. “Education provides a better outcome at fractions of the cost.”

The Vera report said the government wouldn’t need to significantly increase spending on Pell Grants should Congress reverse the 1994 ban.

Almost 7.2 million students received $26.9 billion in awards in 2016-2017, with the average grant being $3,738. Even if all of the almost 463,000 eligible state inmates got a Pell Grant in a single year, spending would increase by less than 10 percent, the report said.

Indi Dutta Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, said the estimated state savings were based on reduced costs of incarceration alone.

He said the numbers likely are conservative because they don’t include the costs of crime, police work and court proceedings. They assume only 50 percent of eligible inmates will receive a grant and they don’t include federal inmates, who make up roughly 175,000 of the about 1.5 million incarcerated in the United States.

Vera President Nick Turner said the timing of the report is particularly good because Congress recently voted 87 to 12 to pass the First Step Act, which, among other things, tackles harsh prison sentences at the federal level.

“It’s a sign of a swing politically,” Turner said. “My view is that for a long time it was hard to make fact-based arguments about good policy that works and produces the outcomes we want. The debate was largely political and organized around fear.”

“This report has clarified in a way we haven’t seen to date what a remarkable return on investment it would be if the (Pell Grant) ban were overturned,” Turner said.

Arthur Rizer, a former prosecutor and police officer who works for R Street Institute, a center-right think tank, said he isn’t surprised First Step garnered bipartisan support and believes a reversal of the ban on Pell Grants for prisoners would, too.

Higher education in prison makes correctional officers safer, he said. It improves the labor pool for businesses by giving the formerly incarcerated the skills they need. And it promotes family, not only because parents who leave prison are more likely to stay home, but also because research shows their children are more likely to pursue higher education themselves.

“As a proud conservative, I hate paying taxes, especially when they’re wasted,” Rizer said. “We can disagree on military spending … but when we know educating is 10 times cheaper than housing, it’s an undisputed waste of tax (money,)” to choose the latter.

Three Rivers Community College is one of the 65 institutions participating in Obama’s Second Chance Pell pilot program. Students of its program, which operates at York Correctional Institution, the women’s prison in East Lyme, and the Radgowski Correctional Institution in Montville, also cited hope as a benefit.

“I feel like it’s a powerful message when (a formerly incarcerated person) can transform themselves into a productive, constructive member of society,” 36-year-old Maurice Mitchell said in July.

l.boyle@theday.com

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