Oregon bills aim to make it easier for inmates, former inmates to pursue higher education
Four bills would help with access, apprenticeships, licensing and oversight
By Sami Edge
SALEM, Ore. — Nearly three decades ago, Congress passed a 1994 crime bill that stripped American prisoners of access to federal Pell grants, which help low-income students pay for college. As a result, once robust training programs inside prisons began to disappear, according to Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland.
Incarcerated students will once again be given access to that federal aid this summer, several years after Congress reauthorized Pell grants for prisoners. In advance of that change, Oregon lawmakers are considering bills that would make it easier for incarcerated individuals to pursue higher education and expand their college and career options after release.
The Senate Education Committee heard testimony on four bills Tuesday. Those bills would do as follows:
- Expand incarcerated students’ access to college courses.
- Establish a state effort to help formerly incarcerated students transition to college and apprenticeships after their release.
- Reduce employment barriers by specifying how licensing boards determine whether a past crime should prohibit a candidate from earning a professional license and requiring boards to consider individual circumstances.
- Require the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission and Department of Corrections to partner on overseeing prison education.
Dembrow, the committee’s chair, said it is important that the state help prepare incarcerated individuals for success after prison.
“We all know that almost everyone who is incarcerated will at some point be returning to our communities and we want to make sure that they’re coming back ready to contribute,” said Dembrow at Tuesday’s hearing. “We know that education that individuals can receive while they’re incarcerated can really make a difference to that end.”
Several formerly incarcerated students testified in support of the bills as did judges, professors and policymakers.
“I can say without a doubt that college saved my life,” testified Kristy Laschober, who enrolled in college at the urging of Judge Ann Aiken after being released from prison six years ago.
“The barriers that people who have an incarceration history face are unbelievable,” she added. “Today, you have the opportunity to build a bridge.”
Senate Bill 270, under a proposal put forth by Dembrow on Wednesday, would allow the Department of Corrections to offer any postsecondary education programs that align with department rules, including classes from community colleges that are not in the immediate vicinity of a prison. The Department of Corrections had raised concerns about a previous version of the bill that would have allowed inmates to enroll in any education programs that accepted them.
Prior to Dembrow introducing his new proposal, college officials expressed support for the bill in written testimony, saying it would help expand equitable access to college classes for students in more remote areas of the state and combat territorialism between colleges.
Betsy Simpkins, who used to work in prison education at Chemeketa Community College, told lawmakers that around 2010 her college was prevented from expanding education offerings to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility because the prison was situated within the Portland Community College service area. Portland Community College at the time wasn’t offering higher education classes to inmates, Simpkins said.
“We absolutely should not allow such seemingly trivial issues as territorial disputes to interfere with the fair and equitable access to education,” Simpkins wrote.
Senate Bill 517 would specify how Oregon’s licensing boards determine whether a criminal conviction should bar an applicant from getting a professional license. The licensing board would have to consider whether the crime is relevant to the job duties, how much time has passed and evidence that the applicant has been through treatment or rehabilitation since the crime occurred. The board also can’t deny a license based on a conviction that was pardoned or sealed.
The bill also allows people convicted of a crime to ask a licensing board to tell them whether their criminal background will be a barrier, in an effort to keep them from wasting time and money trying to earn a professional license if they will ultimately be denied.
Josh Gaines, a project manager with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, argued that Oregon’s licensing laws “lag far behind most states” and that the bill would get the state in line with best practices for “promoting opportunity and protecting public safety.”
But Amanda Dalton, a lobbyist with the Oregon District Attorneys Association, argued the bill creates “confusing and contradictory” provisions that don’t allow licensing boards to appropriately balance the best interests of applicants and the public.
“I think that this is too far, too fast,” Dalton said.
Senate Bill 269 would require the Department of Corrections and the college and university governing body, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, to share data, create a policy for distance-learning in prisons and create a strategy to help adults in custody apply for federal financial aid.
Donna Lewelling, workforce development director for the commission, testified that the bill would allow the agency to “be actively engaged and provide leadership in this very important work.”
“Helping create opportunities for self-sufficiency while reducing homelessness for those who have been formerly incarcerated is so very important,” Lewelling said. “I personally am looking forward to partnering.”
Dembrow expects the committee to vote on the bills during work sessions next Tuesday.