Cunningham, Ruiz Bill for Prisoner Student Financial Aid Advances

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Sandra B. Cunningham that would eliminate the statutory provision prohibiting persons who are incarcerated from receiving state student grants and scholarships advanced from the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee today.

Under the bill, S-2055, an incarcerated person would be subject to the same statutes and regulations governing the receipt of a grant or scholarship through a state-administered program that apply to all other applicants for this aid, provided that the person had been a resident of this state for a period of not less than 12 months immediately prior to the date of incarceration; the person is a state-sentenced inmate; and the person receives approval from the Department of Corrections to enroll in an eligible institution.

The bill would take effect immediately upon enactment.

“Higher education is one of the most powerful deterrents to crime and recidivism, and a most effective way to break the cycle of poverty,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson).  “Recent studies show that for every one dollar invested in correctional education programs, it resulted in a $4-$5 dollar reduction in state incarceration costs during the first three years of a prisoner’s release.”

According to a 2016 Release Outcome Report of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board, and the Juvenile Justice Commission, 10,835 prisoners were released from New Jersey correctional facilities in 2011. Of these prisoners, within three years post-release, 52.7 percent were re-arrested, 39.8 percent were re-convicted, and 31.3 percent were re-incarcerated. In New Jersey each inmate roughly costs the Department of Corrections $54,865 a year as of 2014. Of this population, 31.3 percent of the re-incarcerated individuals released in 2011 were costing NJDOC nearly $200 million per year. Had these prisoners successfully reintegrated into society, most would not have been back in the system at all.

“Offering inmates the opportunity and the means to pursue higher education while in prison can be life changing,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “Creating this opportunity for educational growth will help inmates find jobs and return to normalcy upon their release, reducing the likelihood that they return to prison.”

According to “The Sentencing Project”, New Jersey’s inmate population has consistently fallen from its peak in the 1990s than any other state in the country. Since 1999 — when more than 31,000 people were behind bars in New Jersey — the number of inmates decreased by more than a third. Fewer people are going to prison in New Jersey due in part to several reform policies adopted by the state which include changes to parole policies, drug courts, bail reform and educational opportunities through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium also known as (NJ-STEP).

NJ-STEP is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that works in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and State Parole Board, to provide higher education courses for all qualified students currently numbering around 550. Institutions of higher education that are now participating in this program are Cumberland Community College; Drew University; Essex County College; Mercer County Community College; Princeton University; Raritan Valley Community College; Rutgers University; Salem Community College; and The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). NJ-STEP operates in seven of the nine state correctional facilities and is funded through a combination of private foundation grants and federal funds from Second Chance Pell grants, which was created in 2016 under the Obama administration. These federal funds are contingent upon renewal each year from Washington and advocates fear that given the national tenor, these funds will soon no longer be available to the state.

“New Jersey has made significant strides in reducing it prison population through the offering of higher education opportunities. However, if New Jersey loses the ability to keep programs such as NJ-STEP at its facilities, it will see its inmate population increase and raise the state’s expenses, said Senator Cunningham. “This bill will allow for qualified prisoners to have access to financial aid opportunities as a means to ensure the continuance of programs such as NJ-STEP.”

While the bill would allow for inmates to have access to financial aid, only qualified prisoners selected by the Department of Corrections would be able to take part in these opportunities. 

The bill was approved by a 8-4 vote and advances to the full Senate for further consideration.