By: Robert Scott
All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of TheAdvertiser.
In 1994, the federal government passed a series of “tough on crime” bills. Drug abuse is a medical condition whose treatment relies on health insurance which in many communities, including our own, is often prohibitively expensive. The lack of treatment can lead a person struggling with drug abuse to commit punishable crimes that result in imprisonment, especially if that person is a young black man. The “tough on crime” bills did not reduce the number of such crimes; instead, it increased the number of prisoners. That our criminal justice system is not color blind is shown by the fact that although no state has a population more than half black, twelve states, including South Carolina, have prison populations that are more than half black.
One of the “tough on crime” laws enacted 25 years ago caused incarcerated citizens to lose access to Pell Grants to help pay for post-secondary education while they are serving their sentence. In 2015, the Obama administration started a pilot program to restore access to Pell Grants. Evaluations of this pilot program have been very positive; then politics changed everything with the elections one year later. But politics and policies both change with each election, and now Congress is considering the Restoring Education and Learning Act (REAL Act) which would undo the 1994 prohibition.
Why should we do this, help prisoners who are there because they broke the law, to take college courses when the cost of tuition for everybody outside of prison is skyrocketing? One answer is simple: unlike “tough on crime” bills, education reduces crime. The Episcopal Church, through its Office of Government Relations, is publicizing data showing that when postsecondary education is available to those serving out their prison sentences, recidivism – the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested for a similar offense – plummets by almost half. For every dollar taxpayers spend on prison higher education, five dollars are saved as increased numbers of newly educated former prisoners stay productive in their communities, rather than committing additional crimes and returning to prison.
The Episcopal Church is for that reason asking our members of Congress to support the REAL Act – and we, as citizens of Edgefield County where a federal prison is located, should do so, too. And not for reasons of economics alone, but for reasons of ethics, morality, and religion: it’s the right thing to do. Anything we can do to help prisoners to better themselves, to put their lives back together, to leave prison at the completion of their sentences more prepared to rejoin society, is not only in their best interest. It is in our best interest, too.
Support the REAL Act!