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As part of an effort to improve the quality of education for young offenders, the Obama administration on Monday unveiled new guidance that allows students confined to juvenile correctional facilities to receive Pell Grants.

The guidance clarifies that the prohibition on prisoners getting Pell Grants that Congress enacted two decades ago does not apply to offenders detained in juvenile facilities.

"Students in juvenile justice facilities need a world-class education and rigorous coursework to help them successfully transition out," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. Those students "should not fall off-track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system," he said.

The new guidance is expected to affect only a fraction of the roughly 60,000 young people who are confined in juvenile facilities, since most have not yet completed a high school education and thus would not be eligible for federal aid for college coursework.

"Our best estimate is that there are roughly 4,000 youth in juvenile justice facilities across the country who have the GED or high school diploma needed for Pell Grant eligibility,” said Raymonde Charles, an Education Department spokeswoman.

Advocates for juvenile offenders have said that access to higher education reduces the chance that young people will re-enter the criminal justice system.

David Domenici, director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, had been advocating for Pell eligibility for these students.

The clarification, he said, would “jump-start” access to higher education for juvenile offenders, since many state correctional facilities have largely balked at offering postsecondary training, saying they can’t afford it.

“There are few places in the country where a community college professor comes in and teaches a few classes,” he said. “But the feds just took a big encumbrance off the table” in allowing facilities to provide access to higher education, especially as online education becomes more viable, he added.

The new guidance on Pell Grants was part of a broader package of announcements Monday by the Departments of Education and Justice aimed at boosting educational opportunities and protecting civil rights in juvenile justice facilities. The Obama administration outlined a set of “guiding principles” for such facilities that calls for, among other things, access to college and career and technical education.  

Roughly one-third of juvenile justice facilities provided access to postsecondary or vocational education in 2010, the most recent year for which such federal data is available. More than 70 percent of juvenile facilities offered GED preparation and about half provided GED testing.

Responding to a spike in national crime rates and the ensuing political push to be "tough on crime,” Congress in 1994 prohibited inmates at federal and state prisons from receiving Pell Grants.

The Education Department had previously said the prohibition did not apply to people who are incarcerated in local- or county-run correctional facilities. Those students may receive a Pell Grant as long as they otherwise meet the normal eligibility requirements.

Monday’s guidance clarifies for the first time that students who are committed to juvenile detention facilities also remain eligible for Pell Grants. The policy applies only to Pell Grants. No inmate, regardless of where he or she is incarcerated, may receive federal student loans, according to the department’s guidance.  

Efforts to boost educational opportunities for people convicted of crimes have ramped up in recent years, though they’ve been met with mixed successes.

In 2006, for instance, criminal justice reformers successfully persuaded Congress to scale back the restriction on student aid going to students with drug-related convictions. Students are now subject to a loss of eligibility only if the drug offense occurred while he or she was receiving student aid.

Other recent efforts to boost higher education for offenders have proved more contentious. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this year retreated from his plan to provide state funding for higher education in prisons after backlash from some conservative state lawmakers. 


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