California pushing to expand prison-based bachelor’s degree programs

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently proposed a budget that would expand bachelor’s degree offerings for incarcerated students, KQED reports. Under the budget plan, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) will partner with the California State University system to establish bachelor’s degree programs at seven prisons; the state currently offers just one such program.

The budget includes $1.8 million to create new bachelor’s degree programs in 2020, followed by $3.5 million every year after to pay for participating students’ tuition, books, training, and equipment.

Related: Georgetown Prison Scholars Program receives $1M Mellon Foundation grant >

More than 1,000 incarcerated California students have earned their associate’s degrees and are looking for further educational opportunities, according to Brant Choate, director of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “I met a student who had seven AA [associate] degrees,” he told KQED. “They’re lining up, ready for this.” He estimates that the funding included in Newsom’s budget proposal would provide access to bachelor’s programs for around 200 incarcerated students next year and 400 students annually in each subsequent year.

California has been on the cutting edge of higher education access for incarcerated students since 2014, when lawmakers began allowing community colleges to teach in-person courses in prisons. Today, almost 6,000 students in 34 of California’s 35 state prisons have access to face-to-face courses, according to KQED.

The new push for widespread bachelor’s degree offerings is “incredibly innovative and it’s something that no other state is doing,” says Rebecca Silbert, director of the nonprofit Corrections to College California initiative.

Cost-saving potential

The plan has received bipartisan support thus far, thanks in part to its cost-saving potential. According to a RAND Corporation study, inmates who pursued educational opportunities had a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who did not. “They don’t come back,” Michael Stratman, associate warden at the state prison in Lancaster, told KQED. Additionally, educational programs help create better conditions in prisons.

Visit the Prisons and Justice Initiative website to learn how Georgetown University brings together leading scholars, practitioners, and students to examine mass incarceration from multiple perspectives. PJI also has become a national leader in higher education for incarcerated people, professional training for returning citizens, support for families of the incarcerated, and exonerations after wrongful convictions.

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