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NJ Close to Giving Prisoners Access to State Financial Aid for College Courses

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey says initiative would be ‘a game changer,’ offering those who are incarcerated the prospect of a career rather than a return to the streets ‘with no hope’

Prison education
Credit: Creative Commons

New Jersey would become one of the few states in the nation to provide state financial aid to those who are incarcerated and want to take college courses under a measure working its way through the Legislature. By doing so, it would expand access to college course to more inmates, as existing programs rely on national foundation grants.

Advocates said that ensuring prisoners who want to take classes can afford to do so could be transformational in helping those serving time be able to change their lives and better themselves when they complete their sentences and return to society.

“This is tremendously important; it’s a game changer for many of our clients,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who is chairman of the board of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation. “Taking these courses allows them to have a goal linked to long term career prospects, as opposed to returning to the streets with no hope other than the chaos of the streets.”

A 2014 RAND Corporation study found that those who took classes — college, vocational and high school-equivalency degree courses — while in prison had lower rates of reincarceration and higher rates of post-release employment than prisoners who did not take classes. The study also found that “the direct costs of reincarceration were far greater than the direct costs of providing correctional education” and “correctional education programs appear to far exceed the break-even point in reducing the risk of reincarceration.”

Ending prohibition on prisoners

The bill (S-2055) would eliminate a provision in current state law that prohibits prisoners from receiving either state grants or scholarships. Instead, anyone who was a New Jersey resident for at least a year before incarceration would be eligible for aid, subject to the same rules that apply to all other grant recipients, if the state Department of Corrections (DOC) deems him or her eligible to enroll in college classes.

The Office of Legislative Services’ fiscal note on the bill states that its cost will depend on how many apply for Tuition Aid Grants, New Jersey’s largest aid program for needy students. College courses are offered in seven of the state’s nine correctional facilities through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium, or NJ-STEP. A group of colleges, working with the DOC and State Parole Board, offer a host of classes. About 550 students are currently enrolled. Housed at Rutgers University in Newark, the consortium also includes Cumberland Community College, Drew University, Essex County College, Mercer County Community College, Princeton University, Raritan Valley Community College, Salem Community College and The College of New Jersey.

The colleges provide teachers and classes and consortium staff coordinate course schedules to ensure students can take the classes they need to continue working toward a degree. Counselors help them prepare for release from prison and enrollment into one of the consortium schools, which have developed re-entry support programs to improve the success rates for those enrolled.

The program receives some private foundation grants and students are getting federal aid in the form of Second Chance Pell grants. While federal law has banned inmates from receiving these grants — the major federal grant program for needy students — the Obama administration began a pilot program in 2016 providing Pell grants for about 12,000 inmates nationwide.

“The program exists on cobbling together funding from multiple streams,” said Christopher Agans, acting director of NJ-STEP operations. “Not all students are eligible for Pell, and even when they are, Pell does not cover the cost of tuition. The remaining majority of the tuition for our students is currently covered by private foundations, however that pool is limited and impermanent, and even now there is rarely enough to cover the number of students we’d like to support.”

Fears about Trump administration

Still, prisoners have virtually no income while in jail and cannot afford to take classes without financial assistance. Making people eligible for state TAG could open the classes to more inmates. It would also help guarantee that those incarcerated are able to continue to take classes should the Trump administration decide to end the Second Chance Pell pilot project; that program must be renewed every year and advocates fear that given the national tenor, these funds may soon no longer be available to the state.

“TAG grants are one way to ensure the program can exist if one of the streams dries up,” Agans said.

McGreevey said that prisoners are paid only around $1 an hour, which means most could not afford classes without financial assistance, even though the colleges are providing courses at a reduced cost to inmates. But Pell and TAG grants will “enable clients to enroll in courses behind the wall” and ultimately help them succeed on release.

“Many of our clients wisely put their time behind bars to productive good use, taking college courses and those teaching work skills that they can use when they get out,” he said.

‘Powerful deterrent’ to crime, recidivism

“Higher education is one of the most powerful deterrents to crime and recidivism, and the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty,” said Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D-Hudson), and co-sponsor of the bill. “Recent studies show that for every one dollar invested in correctional education programs, it resulted in a $4-$5 reduction in state incarceration costs during the first three years of a prisoner’s release.”

According to the DOC’s 2016 Release Outcome Report, 10,835 prisoners were released from New Jersey correctional facilities in 2011. Within three years of release, 52.7 percent of them were rearrested, 39.8 percent were reconvicted, and 31.3 percent were reincarcerated. It cost the state close to $55,000 per inmate to house those incarcerated in 2014. The three in 10 inmates reincarcerated cost the DOC nearly $200 million a year. Had these prisoners successfully reintegrated into society, most would not have been back in the system.

“Offering inmates the opportunity and the means to pursue higher education while in prison can be life changing,” said Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), another co-sponsor. “Creating this avenue for educational growth will help inmates find jobs and return to normalcy upon their release, reducing the likelihood that they return to prison.”

New Jersey’s inmate population has been falling from its peak in the 1990s at a higher rate than any other state, according to The Sentencing Project. NJ-STEP is one of the reforms that has contributed to the lower incarceration rates, as well as changes to parole policies, drug courts and bail reform.

Reducing prison population

“New Jersey has made significant strides in reducing its prison population through the offering of higher education opportunities,” Cunningham said. “However, if New Jersey loses the ability to keep programs such as NJ-STEP at its facilities, it will see its inmate population increase and raise the state’s expenses.”

Ruth Delaney, program manager at the Vera Institute of Justice, which has provided funding for NJ-STEP, praised the bill’s passage.

“New Jersey has long been a leader in providing postsecondary education for people in prison, but the Senate vote today moved the state one step closer to removing one of the biggest obstacles to enrollment,” she said. “Expanding access to postsecondary education in prison will help provide people with the skills they need to secure jobs and other opportunities upon release … Our hope is that with states like New Jersey paving the way, others will follow suit and reconsider state and federal barriers to postsecondary education in prison, so as to create a justice system that produces better outcomes for all.”

The bill cleared the Senate last week by a vote of 27-10, largely along party lines. It now heads to the Assembly for consideration.

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