Pell Grants for College for Convicts: Who are we punishing?

Pell Grants for College for Convicts: Who are we punishing?

This past Friday, a headline story announced Obama to start pilot program that gives Pell grants for college to some prisoners.

Given the remarkable array of things that it has been said “Obama” would do or has done or was plotting to do, one might have either pounced on this headline as one more proof of his ill intentions or quickly skimmed over it as one more ridiculous Internet rumor.

I respectfully suggest that it is neither.

It is, in fact, not a rumor (ridiculous, malicious or otherwise). Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the initiative (called the “Second Chance Pell Pilot program”) during a visit to a correctional facility in Maryland on Friday, July 31.

It’s a pilot program, a temporary experiment, because the administration lacks the authority to create a new “permanent” program. But legal staff at the U.S. Department of Education believe they have the authority, under a provision of the Higher Education Act of 1965, to initiate experiments such as this. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (and former secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush), disagrees, noting that Congress expressly prohibited giving Pell grants to prisoners in the same act.

The legal arguments on both sides are interesting. We might find them playing out in dueling memos and press conferences, or in dueling court briefs, over time.

I’m more interested, at least for the moment, in the program itself.

Most of us never have traveled behind the locked doors of a prison. Certainly, most of us never have been arrested and held, even briefly, in jail. Fewer still ever have been convicted of a crime. In short, most of us never have been forced to go where convicts go.

Likewise, most of us never have known someone well enough, and cared about him or her deeply enough, to voluntarily go behind bars, unless it was our job. Some few have done so as an expression of one or another faith, but, again, this must be a small percentage of us.

Given the social stigma, it also is likely that, if we are acquainted with an ex-convict, we may not know it. If we are aware of their problems with the law, we still probably don’t know a lot about their problems once they had paid their debt to society . . . unless we are very good friends indeed. It’s all too embarrassing for pleasant backyard barbecue conversation.

If all of the above is true, then most of us haven’t a clue about the real effects of incarceration on a man or woman, nor about the potentially lifelong effects of a conviction on their record.

My own experience is a little odd. I have had friends I knew well enough and cared enough about to visit in prison. I also have spent time, in ministry, behind those locked doors, up close and personal with both convicted criminals and those yet to be adjudicated who could not post the required bail. My wife spent three years providing and managing mental health care in one of Florida’s (and the nation’s) largest publicly run jail systems. And I have friends with family members who have paid their debt to society and now are struggling to build a life for themselves and those they love.

Here’s the question those experiences raise:

Who are we punishing when we refuse to help convicts become functional and productive members of our community when they are released?

The individual who was convicted, certainly. But who else?

Very few of those who are convicted of a crime receive a lifetime sentence. Sooner or later, the vast majority will be back out on the street.

Some of them committed crimes because they were and remain fundamentally lawless, wicked, violent . . . whatever words you’d like to apply.

Many committed crimes related to or propelled by the use and abuse of alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. They may have an addiction problem. Society as a whole will be best served if they never fall back into that trap.

But how will they afford help when they need it if they can’t get a real job? Indeed, how will they lift their minds and their hands to building an honest life if no one will hire them for a living wage?

And if they cannot find a decent job, or even if that path seems so much more difficult than falling into hiding from reality in the fuzz of drugs or the appeal of a quick crime, there is every likelihood that they again will run afoul of the law. When they do, the cost will be considerable for those against whom they offend. It also will be considerable for society as a whole, given the whole process of arrest, investigation, trial and renewed incarceration.

So who are we punishing when we set up the game of life to increase the odds that those who failed criminally will do so again?

I think we are punishing ourselves.

More to follow . . .

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