More than 2 million people are incarcerated on any given day in the United States, and over 700,000 former prisoners transition back to their communities every year. We can—and must—do much more to help these young people and adults become productive members of society.
The Obama administration’s move to make federal Pell Grants available for some inmates to take college courses is an important step in the right direction. Finding a full-time job after serving time in prison is one of the primary predictors of successful reentry. And while most jobs at a fair living wage require postsecondary education and credentials, the average state prisoner has only a tenth-grade education.
Pell Grants alone will not solve this problem, but they may be part of a set of strategies to expand college and career pathways to improve the life prospects of people involved in the criminal justice system, as we explain in our new brief, Supporting Second Chances: Education and Employment Strategies for People Returning from Correctional Facilities.
There’s a sizeable list of policy and program priorities to tackle to help smooth the transition process for people leaving prison. Here are three big ones:
- Begin behind bars: The best programs begin in prison and extend throughout the release and reintegration process, with an emphasis on work training and placement, behavioral support services, and housing assistance. Career coaching includes preparation on how to answer the tough questions, such as "Why is there such a big gap in your resume?"
- Provide specialized supports: Make use of reentry supports, ideally with help from reentry specialists who know local employers and social service providers, in order to address immediate needs, such as job placement assistance, housing, food, and mental health services.
- Increase job placement via policy: Expand Ban the Box legislation, which prevents employers from rejecting ex-offenders before determining whether they are qualified for a job. Tax and other incentives for hiring ex-offenders may already be in place, and employers simply need to be educated on these policies.
Policies like these and many more outlined in the brief can help both adults and youth. While the pilot Pell program is new for adults, the Obama administration also helped youth, already Pell-eligible, by issuing new guidance in 2014 to clarify that and how students in juvenile correctional facilities can apply for Pell Grants to pay for postsecondary education.
JFF is working on creating and implementing pathways systems for young people transitioning from the juvenile justice system. With the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, we are providing grants and technical assistance through the Social Innovation Fund to San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Philadelphia. In these regions, community-based organizations will provide comprehensive support services and case management, as well as self-efficacy, violence-prevention, and career-readiness training, as justice-involved youth work toward credentials and employment. Collaborative partners will create subsidized employment based on individuals’ career interests, promoting both career awareness and career readiness at the pivotal point of reentry and rehabilitation.
We applaud President Obama for increasing attention on these important issues. Let’s be sure to take advantage of the rising interest nationally and work together to make a real difference for our former prisoners who have served their time, for our communities, and for our nation.