Cunningham and Ruiz Bill to Allow Inmates to Receive State Financial Aid for Education Clears Committee

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senate Higher Education Chair Sandra Bolden Cunningham and Senator M. Teresa Ruiz that would allow incarcerated persons to receive state financial aid in order to receive an education cleared the Senate Higher Education Committee today.

“Higher education is one of the most powerful deterrents to crime and recidivism and is one of the most effective ways to break cycles of poverty because it creates inroads to educational opportunities in communities that suffer from a chronic lack of access,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson).  “Studies have shown that those who receive an education while incarcerated have more employment opportunities when they leave prison, and thus are less likely to return.”

“When inmates are offered the opportunity and the means to pursue higher education, the trajectory of their lives can change,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex).  “Empowering people with the chance to attain knowledge and improve their lives grows stronger neighborhoods and makes a stronger state.

The bill, S-2055, would eliminate the current statutory provision that prohibits those who are incarcerated from receiving state student grants and scholarships.  Those seeking the financial aid would be subject to the same process and set of regulations as everyone else who applies for state financial aid.  However, they would also have to seek the approval of the Department of Corrections in order to be eligible.  To qualify, the inmate would have to have been a resident of New Jersey for at least 1 year before incarceration.

The bill borrows from the core idea of the 2016 pilot program launched by the Obama Administration titled, “Second Chance Pell Pilot Program”.  The pilot program worked with higher education institutions, through Pell Grants, to teach currently incarcerated individuals.  As a result, the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) was created to work with the New Jersey Department of Corrections to provide higher education courses for inmates.  Due to the current political nature in Washington, there is uncertainty for the survival of this program, which is why this bill would allow for New Jersey to continue such programs in the event the funding disappears.

According to a RAND study from 2017, every dollar spent on this program saves $4-$5 for taxpayers.  This is due to the educational attainment that allows for inmates to leave prison in a better position to obtain a job, allowing for them to be less likely to return to prison.  Receiving an education gives opportunities to those who would otherwise not be in the position to benefit.

The bill was released from committee with a vote of 4-1, and next heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.