Bills Introduced to Expand Access to Education to Those With Criminals Records

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U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) introduced two bills on May 7, 2019, to expand access to education for Americans with criminals records, whether they are in prison or applying to go back to school.

“People with a criminal record should have the chance to learn or go back to school,” said Sen. Schatz. “These bills target the barriers that make it harder for people to pursue a better life through higher education.”

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.

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%. 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.


The PREP Act is cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Companion legislation in House of Representatives is being led by U.S. Representatives Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and 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.

The second bill, the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act, is being reintroduced by Senator Schatz. 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.


“Sen. Schatz’s Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act is a key step toward making higher education a reality by removing criminal record questions from college applications. Congress should continue to work toward achieving educational justice and opportunity by passing this bill,” said John B. King Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust.

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.


As part of his push to encourage schools to change their processes, Sen. Schatz has previously led letters to the “Big Six” higher education associations and the Common Application asking them to remove criminal history questions from their admissions processes. As a result, the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Association of Community Colleges urged their members to remove these questions. And recently, the Common Application decided to remove criminal history questions from their form starting in August 2019.

The original cosponsors of the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act include U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), 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.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), 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.).

Companion legislation in House of Representatives is being led by U.S. Representatives Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

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.

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