Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Three Maryland lawmakers and a Hawaii senator joined forces to introduce a pair of bills that would expand access to education for Americans with criminal records — whether they are in prison or applying to return to school with a rap sheet.

The bills — known as Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons (PREP) Act and the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act — would reform prison education and encourage colleges and universities to keep criminal records out of the admission process.

“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 Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, who introduced the bill along with fellow Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “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.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) announced the introduction of both bills in the House.

“Education changes lives and is proven to help individuals successfully re-enter their communities,” Cummings said. “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.

“If people are willing to better themselves through education, then we must provide them with every opportunity to do so,” he said.

The PREP Act would improve federal prison education by creating both an office within the Bureau of Prisons 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 and help eligible incarcerated veterans’ access to education benefits in prison.

The Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act 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.

“Access to education helps break down barriers and open doors,” Van Hollen said, adding that about 70 million Americans have some type of criminal record, which shows up on all routine background checks. “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 sizable burden incarceration puts our economy. I urge Congress to take up these common-sense proposals immediately.”

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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