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KEEP UP PELL GRANTS TO INMATES

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What to do about inmates in America's prisons is a difficult issue. In the search for answers, there is a tendency to try and simplify too much.

The philosophy of "Lock 'em up and throw away the key" appeals to some people as does the idea of prison as a place to punish instead of rehabilitate.That mood seems to be gaining weight in Congress where the "three strikes" concept would lock up lawbreakers for life after a third felony. The crime bill now before Congress also would eliminate Pell Grants for prisoners. Life is more complicated than such easy answers.

The Pell Grant program, a form of federal scholarship, has been available to inmates for the past two decades, allowing them to work for a college education while in prison.

While getting rid of such scholarships for inmates may please the "get tough" advocates, it really won't save much money and the long-term losses to prisoners could have serious consequences.

Most prisoners return to the community - but as what? If they have little or no education, no specific plans for the future, no skills or resources, they likely will turn again to crime.

The Pell Grants are the sources of success stories involving people who would have no chance otherwise. Even those who don't become graduates get better education from college courses than the usual "wisdom" acquired from fellow inmates.

While helping convicts is worthwhile, the money has to come from somewhere. That raises another problem.

Only about 1 percent of Pell Grants go to prison inmates. The other 99 percent goes to young people trying to attend college. Some parents have complained that a law-abiding young person may struggle to finish high school, qualify with grades for college and fail to obtain a much-needed Pell Grant - a grant that may be relatively easy for a prison inmate to obtain.

That argument tugs at the heart strings. But following it to a logical conclusion would mean that nothing could ever be done to help prison inmates until the needs of everybody else in society was satisfied. That won't work, either, especially since just locking people up is expensive in its own right.

Some funding simply has to be diverted to educate and rehabilitate inmates who want to make use of the opportunity. This isn't "coddling." Not doing anything would be far more costly to society in many ways than the money involved in Pell Grants.