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Thousands of inmates will receive Pell grants

Some 12,000 prisoners will have access to federal Pell grants to help pay for college courses under an effort the Obama administration is pursuing despite a decades-old congressional ban on offering student financial aid to inmates.

The program, first announced last summer, will bring together 67 colleges and universities -- including several in Maryland -- with 141 federal and state prisons across the country in an effort to reduce recidivism. Only inmates eligible for release will be permitted to enroll in the program.

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A "belief in second chances is fundamental to who we are as Americans," Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. told reporters Thursday.

A number of Maryland schools will take part in the effort, including the University of Baltimore and Goucher College, which has offered college coursework at state prisons for years. Federal officials, including then Education Secretary Arne Duncan, visited the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup last year to announce the program.

But despite bipartisan support for criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill, the program has met with resistance from congressional Republicans in the past. Lawmakers prohibited the government from providing student aid to prisoners in 1994. The administration is relying on a 1965 law that gives the Education Department broad latitude to run pilot programs.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat, has carried legislation that would lift the ban on prisoners receiving student aid.

The politics of criminal justice has shifted significantly in recent years; tough-on-crime stances previously embraced by both political parties have softened. Lawmakers have proposed bipartisan legislation that would reduce swollen prison populations, but it is not clear whether any of those measures will advance in a thorny presidential election year.

Administration officials also unveiled millions of dollars in new grant funding Thursday intended to help prisoners transition into the workforce after release. The Labor Department will provide more than $60 million in grants to organizations setting up job centers within prisons or offering registered apprenticeships to young adults.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez said he had witnessed the power of such programs years ago when served as the head of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

"Employing former offenders is not simply an act of charity, it's an act of enlightened self interest," said Perez, of Montgomery County. "They're hungry for opportunity."

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As part of the administration's focus on criminal justice reform, a White House official said Thursday that the Department of Justice plans to hold a meeting in Baltimore on youth violence next week. Further detail about that meeting was not available.

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