A quality education has long been revered as a way to give people a chance to climb the socioeconomic ladder — and hopefully one day achieve their own American dream.
This is why for more than 20 years, starting in the 1970s, the federal government allowed people behind bars to receive Pell Grants to pursue higher education in the hopes of reducing recidivism after their release from prison.
But in 1994, Congress passed a law as part of former President Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” narrative that stripped incarcerated persons of their Pell Grant eligibility, according to a report by nonpartisan public policy organization R Street Institute.
Lancaster’s Republican congressman, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, has joined with other conservatives who support Pell Grant reinstatement for incarcerated individuals. Legislation to reinstate the program was first introduced in 2015 by former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md.
Smucker spoke about his support for the initiative Thursday at the Chester County State Correctional Institution at an event called “Prison CPAC” hosted by the American Conservative Union.
Because of his growing relationship with President Donald Trump, Smucker is the one who can “bring home the bacon,” said Brandon Flood, the secretary of the state’s Board of Pardons.
Smucker, who has focused much of his time in Congress on workforce development, is now reaching into the justice system to prepare individuals for life after prison. Growing up in an Amish family, he was the first one in his family to go to high school and worked nights to pay for his private education.
“(Education is) really what helped me learn more about myself and learn what I could achieve,” Smucker said onstage at Prison CPAC, in front of inmates from the state prison.
Pell Grants are offered to people “who display exceptional financial need,” according to the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student aid website. The maximum grant amount is $6,195 for undergraduate students for the 2019-20 academic year. For student who are currently eligible, the money does not need to be paid back. The amount a student is eligible for depends on their need and whether they're a full-time or part-time student.
If Congress passes the Higher Education Act Reauthorization, which Smucker helped prepare as the ranking Republican member of the Higher Education and Workforce Investment subcommittee, the Pell Grants would become available to people who are incarcerated.
Flood applauded Smucker for taking an interest in the topic and rebuffed frequent arguments against allowing people who are incarcerated from accessing the money.
“I know most of the contingent about such a policy comes from the nonincarcerated population who say, ‘Hey I guess I might as well commit a crime now,’ ” he said.
“Certainly, when people make that argument, they don’t account for the collateral consequences of having a conviction,” Flood added. “Any program that will give our incarcerated population a leg up and help toward their successful reentry is a good thing.”
Smucker’s support of education is why he’s advocating for reinstating Pell Grants. He also introduced a piece of legislation that would more effectively spend federal dollars for workforce development of people who were incarcerated. He said his staff found current programs were not successfully training people.
“It’s the idea that the education that made a difference in my life certainly helped me understand who I was,” Smucker later said. “That education is every bit as important in these walls as anywhere else and will provide the tools to reintegrate back into society.”
While most people will reenter society after serving their sentence, 4% of inmates will be incarcerated for life. Smucker said he supports funding Pell Grants, even for those serving life sentences, because these people create the prison’s culture. Smucker’s statement supporting education for lifers drew a round of applause from inmates in the audience.
Smucker said his staff has “had more meetings on that issue than any other,” so far this year.
Jean Bickmire, who leads Have a Heart Lancaster, also said she applauded the congressman. Have a Heart advocates for people within the criminal justice system.
“I’m glad that Congressman Smucker understands the value of education and viable employment for people trying to reintegrate,” Bickmire said. “As the rest of the country has noted, people deserve second chances. We incarcerate way too many people and this is just a way to save people money.”