WASHINGTON — More than 20 years after banning prisoners from receiving student aid, some federal and state inmates could be eligible for Pell grant money to take college courses while still behind bars.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the administration's new Second Chance Pell Pilot program during a visit Friday to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, Maryland.
"America is a nation of second chances," Duncan said. "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. It can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers."
The program will allow, on a temporary basis, federal grants to be used to cover college costs for prisoners for the first time since Congress excluded them from student aid in 1994. It will last three to five years and be open to prisoners who are eligible for release, particularly within the next five years. Inmates could be eligible for the money as early as the fall of 2016.
Pell grants are for low-income people and do not have to be repaid.
Republicans were quick to criticize the program, saying it rewards people who break the law at the expense of hard-working Americans and that the administration doesn't have authority to act without an OK from Congress.
GOP Rep. Chris Collins of New York introduced legislation to block Pell money from being used in the experimental program, saying it will "put the cost of a free college education for criminals on the backs of the taxpayers."
A Republican committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the idea may be worthwhile for some prisoners, "but the administration absolutely does not have the authority to do this without approval from Congress, because the Higher Education Act prohibits prisoners from receiving Pell Grants." Alexander, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and an education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said the administration should focus on existing job training and re-entry programs.
Congress passed legislation in 1994 banning government student aid to prisoners in federal or state institutions. But the Education Department said it can set up the temporary pilot program because of the experimental sites section of the Higher Education Act of 1965. It gives federal officials flexibility to test the effectiveness of temporary changes to the way federal student aid is distributed.
Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell said the ban is over 20 years old, and "we think that a lot has changed" since then. He said the pilot program will help provide data to see if the ban should still stay in place. Mitchell said the program will "not compromise or displace any Pell grant eligibility for any other populations."
As the end of his presidency draws closer, President Barack Obama has taken on criminal justice reform more aggressively, taking executive action as well as pushing for new legislation. Some of those initiatives have attracted bipartisan interest, as Republican presidential candidates including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie promote the need for changes in the justice system.
Earlier this month, Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders — the most commutations a president has issued on a single day in at least four decades. He also ordered a federal review of the use of solitary confinement, called for voting rights to be restored to felons who have served their sentences, asked employers to stop asking job candidates about past convictions and urged that long mandatory minimum sentences now in place be reduced or discarded entirely.
Supporters of the administration's Pell pilot program point to a 2013 Rand study that found incarcerated people who took part in prison education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners who didn't participate in any correctional education. For every dollar invested in correctional education programs, Rand estimates that four to five dollars are saved on three year re-incarceration costs.
The Education Department did not provide any estimates on how many prisoners might participate in the pilot program. Mitchell said the costs will be "modest" but he was not able to put a dollar figure on the program.
The federal Pell program provided grants ranging from $582 to $5,645 to more than 8.6 million students in 2013-2014, according to the department. The maximum award for the current 2015-2016 school year is $5,775.
The Maryland Correctional Institution that Duncan and Lynch visited has a partnership with nearby Goucher College. More than 70 prisoners are enrolled in Goucher College through the school's Prison Education Partnership, which began classes for prisoners in 2012 and does not receive public funding.
Goucher is part of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, based at Bard College in New York. Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Grinnell College in Iowa also are part of the consortium.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.