News Local/State

Durbin Regrets Voting To Take Pell Grants Away From Prisoners

An image of a crop field with a large prison wall behind it.

Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Crest Hill, Ill. Jim Larrison/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin is cosponsoring legislation that would rollback one of the provisions of the 1994 crime bill. It’s called the Restoring Education and Learning Act — or REAL Act. The bill would restore Pell Grant eligibility to people incarcerated in state and federal prisons. 

Pell Grants are provided to people from lower income backgrounds to help them pay for college. The maximum award for the 2018-19 school year was just above $6,000 per person. 

The U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration created the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which provided Pell Grants to roughly 8,800 people in prison nationwide. 

Last month, the U.S. DOE announced that it would expand the program to more colleges and universities who wanted to offer classes inside prisons. 

Research indicates that educational opportunities may reduce recidivism rates and save states money on incarceration costs. A study published by the Vera Institute of Justice earlier this year estimates that Illinois could save between $8 and $26 million annually on incarceration costs if Pell Grant eligibility was restored to people in prison. According to the report, roughly 16,000 Illinois inmates would be eligible for the grants. 

Illinois Newsroom interviewed Durbin, the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, about his support for the legislation. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

The Restoring Education and Learning Act is legislation that was reintroduced by your colleague,  Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii D-HI and you’re cosponsoring it. Why do you support this bill?

Well, because we've learned the truth of the situation. Most of the men and women who are incarcerated will ultimately be released. And when they are released, there's an obvious question, ‘are they going to commit another crime, create another victim, or do something with their lives?’ We should start in the incarceration period, assessing these prisoners and their future. 

And I joined in this legislation in the hopes that we can encourage training and education. We’ve found time and again that when people pick up a skill, become better educated in prison, they have a better chance to come out, not commit a crime and have a good positive life from that point forward.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

You actually supported the 1994 crime bill which, among other things, barred people in prison from receiving Pell Grants. Why was that?

It was probably the worst vote I ever cast. I bet you've never heard a senator say that. But it was a natural human reaction. 

We were facing this crack cocaine epidemic. And we were seeing real evidence that it was going to destroy certain parts of our society, harmful to those who are addicted to it, especially pregnant women. And we overreacted. We came down hard, like a ton of bricks. And it failed. That war on drugs failed. The price of crack cocaine didn't go up on the street, it went down. The number of addicts didn't go down, they went up. 

And we ended up seeing America's prisons filled — a 500% increase in incarceration. We didn't address and solve the problem effectively. Part of it was this terrible dilemma we faced. They said, ‘okay, you want to give Pell Grants to people in prison and take them away from the kids who didn't go to prison?’ Well, that's a false choice. 

And it turns out that many of us voted to take the Pell Grants away from prisoners, and we looked back on it said, ‘we're going to pay for that ultimately, if people go back into prison after they've served their first term.’ So we've got to be more proactive and rehabilitative, and we've come around finally — both Democrats and Republicans —  to believe that we've got to take a much different approach.

If Pell Grants are reinstated for people in prison, who should qualify to receive them?

That's a good question. I mean, you look at it today, and basically, if you're admitted to an institution of higher learning, and you have certain economic circumstances — lower middle income families — you're eligible for the $6,000 Pell Grant. So we need to think this through if, for example, those who are serving time in prison would be admitted to a community college program that's being administered in that prison, then certainly compensating the community college and the professor teaching the course is a reasonable way to approach this. Let's do it thoughtfully, eyes wide open. But if there is a way to move people from a life of crime to a more productive life, releasing them from prison and reducing dramatically the chance that we're going to have to go through another crime, another victim, another trial, another incarceration —  that's money well spent.

Are we talking about all incarcerated people, or just those with non-violent convictions?

I don't know the answer to that. I'm open to an approach, certainly, for those with non-violent crimes. But let's be honest, people who have committed violent crimes, the vast majority of them are ultimately going to be released at some point. And when it comes down to it, there are certain things we might be able to do in that prison environment that really turns their lives around. 

Some of it could be not just education, but mental health counseling. They may be dealing with some demons in their brain, which affected them from an early age. They also could be in a situation where they face an addiction. Most prisons don't have a program to deal directly with addiction. And if a person is released from prison goes right back into that addiction, then it's likely we're going to have a repeat of the first bad circumstance.

How do you pass something like this in today’s political climate?

Well, the kind of surprising news is the bill I had for prison reform and criminal sentencing reform was actually signed by President Trump. It's something I worked for for over 10 years after I took a look at that war on drugs vote many years ago and thought this was a mistake, we've got to get this right. Well, we put together coalition —  very conservative Republicans, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), and then I had my friend, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and we teamed up with Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law whose father spent time in prison. So, there's a growing bipartisan sentiment to look at incarceration, and reducing crime in a different way.

Prison educators have raised some concerns about this legislation. They’re worried the financial incentive of the Pell Grants will lead colleges and universities to offer a subpar education to incarcerated people. What’s your response to that concern?

I share their concern in this respect: right now, there are people exploiting higher education. The for-profit colleges and universities are charging too much and teaching too little. We know what works: community colleges work, they're affordable. The courses that students take there are transferable to universities. So let's stick with the proven source of good education. Be careful of those who would step in and say, ‘oh, we've got a magic course here. We want to offer it from this new for-profit operation.’ I'm very skeptical of that. Too many of those students are being disappointed and under-educated and end up in massive debt. Let's not have that happen with any effort we put into the Illinois correctional system.

You’re also cosponsoring the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act with Sen. Schatz. This legislation would encourage universities and colleges to stop asking applicants about their criminal records. Given that Illinois lawmakers haven’t passed legislation to ban the question on public college and university applications — even though advocates have tried for years — what’s the likelihood this will pass on the federal level? And would it change anything?

It’s uphill. Let me be honest about it. I don't think it's going to be easy to pass. Some states they call it ‘ban the box’ so you don't have to disclose certain things about your life and background, such as the fact that you have been incarcerated, convicted. There are some jobs where there should be an exception. In fact, there's jobs now where a criminal conviction would disqualify you from even being considered for a job. But we want to give people who pay their price in society truly a second chance. And that's why I support the legislation. It's an uphill battle, but I think we'll reach the point someday where it's passed.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines