Prisons should be a place not just of punishment but education.
Such is the message from sponsors of a bill state lawmakers have begun advancing that would allow New Jersey inmates to receive state aid to learn behind bars.
The state Senate Higher Education Committee approved the Democrat-sponsored measure on Thursday.
“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 state Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, a sponsor and the panel’s chair.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, agreed.
“When inmates are offered the opportunity and the means to pursue higher education, the trajectory of their lives can change,” said Ruiz, another sponsor.
It can also “grow stronger neighborhoods” and lead to a “stronger state,” she added.
About 550 of New Jersey’s prisoners take college courses, and advocates say about 300 more could be eligible, according to a report by New Jersey 101.5-FM.
The costs are paid through federal Pell Grants and philanthropic funds, the report said.
But inmates are currently banned from receiving state grants and scholarships. This legislation (S2055/A3722) would reverse that.
Anyone seeking the money would be subject to the same process and regulations as everyone else who applies for state aid. But they would also need the approval of the state Department of Corrections.
Only inmates who were a resident of the state for at least one year before incarceration are eligible.
The measure was approved by the Senate committee, 4-1, with three Democrats and one Republican supporting it. State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, voted against it.
“This is not an increase in any way, shape or form to our taxpayers,” state Sen. Chris A. Brown, R-Atlantic, told the panel. “It’s simply opening up an opportunity to perhaps those that need it the most.”
Christopher Agans, acting director of NJ-STEP, a Rutgers-Newark program that helps education prisoners, said a RAND study from last year found every dollar spent on teaching inmates saves $5 on re-incarating and policing.
The bill must be approved by the full state Senate and state Assembly before it reaches Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for his signature or veto.
Brent Johnson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @johnsb01. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.