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Second Chances: Education and Justice Involved Students

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Second Chances: Education and Justice Involved Students

By: Amy Loyd, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education

On the first work day of April, during which we celebrate Second Chance Month, I had the honor of joining colleagues from the Department of Justice and local and state leadership at an event held at a Miami-Dade College campus located within Everglades Correctional Institution in Florida.  The event celebrated the upcoming reinstatement of federal Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated individuals and was an important reminder of how essential postsecondary education in prison is for students, their families, correctional staff, and our communities.  As we come to the close of Second Chance Month, the Department of Education (ED) lifts up and reaffirms our commitment to providing equitable access to and engagement in high-quality education and training for people who are justice-involved, including people who are incarcerated and those returning home from jail and prison. Education has the power to transform lives and communities and open doors to rewarding careers and meaningful community engagement. Research demonstrates that people who obtain their high school equivalencies while in prison increase their earnings by 24-29% within the first year of release, and those who participate in correctional education programs are 13% less likely to recidivate than those who do not.  The Department calls upon institutions of higher education (institutions) to join us in celebrating Second Chance Month and treating all people who are justice-involved with dignity and respect by banning the box and equitably mitigating barriers to high-quality postsecondary education.   

A woman in a prison education program recently told me, “I wish people would not judge me by my worst decisions and my biggest mistake that I made years ago, but instead judge me by the choices I make and the actions I take today and tomorrow.” By centering the voices and thoughts of people who have been affected by criminal justice system involvement, we underscore the importance of rehabilitation, redemption, and reentry. ED recognizes how important it is to have subject matter expertise and lived experience involved in our correctional and reentry education policy development and implementation. To that end, ED recently announced a Second Chance Fellow program. Modeled after the Department of Justice’s program, ED’s Second Chance Fellow program will leverage lived experience and subject matter expertise to improve our policies and programs, enhancing our ability to implement and increase the impact of Pell reinstatement as well as other cross-cutting issues that impact students who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.   

One of the Department’s priority policy areas is correctional education, and we respect, engage, listen to, and support people who are justice-involved, including people who are incarcerated, as they seek to improve their lives through an array of education: adult basic education, high school diplomas and equivalencies, career and technical education, and postsecondary education. Given that 95 percent of incarcerated people will eventually return home from jail or prison, we at ED are proud of the work we do to provide people who are incarcerated with educational opportunities while in prison and throughout their reentry process to support their ability to succeed and thrive after release.  Education provides people who are incarcerated with the best chance to create a new vision and identity for themselves; education provides them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to thrive and build better lives; education inspires their children and families to also pursue education; and education dramatically reduces their likelihood for recidivism. Research estimates that for every dollar invested in prison education programs, taxpayers save four to five dollars from lowered recidivism rates. And correctional education programs also provide positive outcomes for people who are serving lengthy and life sentences by providing them the opportunity to develop their skills and dedicate themselves through education, thereby supporting their wellbeing as well as enhancing the rehabilitative focus and safety within correctional facilities.  

We are pleased to announce an updated version of our Beyond the Box guide, incorporating the lessons from the Department’s nearly 200 Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites, as well as experienced voices from the field and national correctional rehabilitation experts on how institutions can provide supports and services for formerly incarcerated students to thrive in postsecondary education. This guide incorporates input from a variety of stakeholders, including formerly incarcerated students, leaders of organizations and institutions that work with formerly incarcerated students, and criminal justice policy experts. It includes an overview of education and criminal justice in the United States, with a focus on the importance of increasing access to postsecondary education for justice-involved individuals; data on the barriers that formerly incarcerated students face both during the admissions process and while enrolled; and recommendations to mitigate barriers to enrollment and ensure persistence and completion; and resources for further exploration, including research and analysis of promising practices, and an overview of leading organizations that are currently supporting this work. Expanding opportunities for quality education in jails and prisons and during reentry is vital to ensuring that justice-involved persons have meaningful opportunities to access good jobs, to engage in and contribute to their communities, and to write a new promising new chapter as they return home. 

This Second Chance Month—especially as our nation prepares for the July 2023 full reinstatement of federal Pell Grants for individuals who are incarcerated—ED calls upon institutions across the country to re-examine their admissions and student service policies and holistically determine how they can better serve and support current and formerly incarcerated students. We call on you to ban the box! Programs such as Project Rebound, the Institute for Justice and Opportunity, the Rising Scholars Program, the 180 RAP program, and NJ-STEP are just a few examples of efforts that institutions have undertaken to support justice-involved students that can serve as models.  

We need our colleges and universities to join us in working toward an education system in which all students who are justice-involved receive the supports they need to thrive in postsecondary education, communities, and life—and we will all be the better for it. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” 

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