May 09, 2019

Van Hollen, Cardin, Cummings Announce Legislation to Promote Educational Opportunities for Americans with Criminal Records

Bills Would Reform Prison Education, Encourage Colleges and Universities To Keep Criminal Records Out Of Admissions Process

This week, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin (both D-Md.) joined Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) in the Senate and U.S. Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) in the House to announce the introduction of two bills to expand access to education for Americans with criminals records, whether they are in prison or applying to go back to school with a criminal record.

“Access to education helps break down barriers and open doors. Expanding opportunities for returning citizens and individuals in prison is crucial to ensuring these men and women are able to have a successful future. These efforts not only directly help returning citizens, but they also reduce recidivism rates and the sizeable burden incarceration puts our economy. I urge Congress to take up these common-sense proposals immediately,” said Senator Van Hollen.

“There isn’t a single member of Congress who hasn’t received a second chance at one point or another. Others who have made mistakes deserve the same opportunities for redemption,” said Senator Cardin. “If we want to reduce recidivism, we must do all we can to better integrate citizens back into their communities. Expanding educational opportunities is one of the most effective ways to restore hope and provide new skills for post-incarceration success.”

“Education changes lives and is proven to help individuals successfully re-enter their communities.  The bills we introduced provide educational resources for individuals while incarcerated and remove barriers that hold many formally-incarcerated aspiring students back from successfully starting their second chance,” said Congressman Cummings. “If people are willing to better themselves through education, then we must provide them with every opportunity to do so.” 

The Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons (PREP) Act is new legislation that would improve federal prison education by creating both an office within the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) focused on federal correctional education and a new program focused on partnerships between federal prisons and local education providers. It would also provide training and resources for state and local prisons to use in their own education programs. The PREP Act would help eligible incarcerated veterans’ access to education benefits in prison.

Education programs in prison can dramatically help formerly incarcerated individuals by providing the tools to rebuild their lives, while at the same time improving public safety and reducing correctional spending. They also have a clear public safety benefit, reducing recidivism rates by over 43 percent. People in federal prisons, however, do not have access to consistent or adequate education opportunities, and the BOP lacks resources needed to administer educational programs.

“Time and time again we’ve seen high quality education programs behind the walls transform people’s lives. It’s a key piece of having individuals leave prison less likely to commit a crime and more likely to be a successful citizen,” said John Wetzel, President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

In addition to Senators Van Hollen, Cardin, and Schatz, the PREP Act is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). In the House, in addition to Congressman Cummings, the legislation is being led by U.S. Representative Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.).

The PREP Act has been endorsed by over 20 organizations, including the Association of State Correctional Administrators, NAACP, ACLU, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, #cut50, Campaign for Youth Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, The Sentencing Project, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). A full list of endorsing organizations can be found here.

Senators Van Hollen, Cardin, and Schatz and Congressman Cummings are also reintroducing the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act. The bill would encourage colleges and universities to remove criminal and juvenile justice questions from their admissions applications by providing guidance and training to schools to change their policies. Most schools currently include these questions in their admissions processes.

“This bill signifies an important step toward removing barriers to access to higher education in fulfilling our nation's historic mission of educating for democracy,” said Lynn Pasquerella, President of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

About 70 million Americans have some type of criminal record, which shows up on all routine background checks. These records make it difficult for these Americans to go to college, find a good-paying job, and rebuild their lives. Studies have shown that rejection rates for potential students with convictions are higher than applicants who don’t have these kinds of backgrounds, and many fail to complete their application once they reach the criminal history question.

“Nothing reduces recidivism and improves public safety more than effective education and rehabilitation. This bill can help us improve outcomes for the formerly incarcerated and strengthen the communities to which they return,” said Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act would go a long way towards helping people redeem themselves and become productive and contributing members of our society,” said Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau & SVP of Advocacy & Policy.

In addition to Cardin, Van Hollen, and Schatz the original cosponsors of the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act include U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In the House, in addition to Congressman Cummings, the legislation is being led by U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond (D-La.)

The Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act is supported by more than 40 organizations including the Association of American Colleges & Universities, NAACP, ACLU, The Education Trust, Institute for Higher Education Policy, National Association for College Admission Counseling, Equal Justice Initiative, and #cut50. A full list of endorsing organizations can be found here.