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Program Funds Education to Reform Criminal Justice

The Unlocking Futures program chose the Prison Scholar Fund and seven other businesses to receive support to expand their reach. (Dirk Van Velzen/Prison Scholar Fund)
The Unlocking Futures program chose the Prison Scholar Fund and seven other businesses to receive support to expand their reach. (Dirk Van Velzen/Prison Scholar Fund)
December 7, 2017

SEATTLE – What would it take to reform criminal justice and reduce the number of people who return to prison?

A nonprofit group in Washington state might have the answer.

The Prison Scholar Fund helps people behind bars finance their college education. So far, the program has been very successful: Only 4 percent of Scholar Fund students have gone back to prison, compared with more than two-thirds nationally.

Dirk Van Velzen, founder and executive director of the Prison Scholar Fund, says an education puts people in a much better position when they're released.

"When they get out of prison, they don't face homelessness as much,” he points out. “They can get a job, they can pay rent, and of course, if they're working and living well, then they're probably not committing crimes too. So, recidivism really drops."

This week, the fund's success caught the attention of musician and criminal justice activist John Legend's FREEAMERICA organization. Legend chose it and seven other projects for the first round of the Unlocked Futures program.

The program, with support from New Profit and Bank of America, will provide 16 months of support as the entrepreneurs behind these projects expand their reach.

Van Velzen himself is testament to the power of education behind bars. He once was imprisoned himself, and unable to apply for a Pell Grant or find tuition support elsewhere, he turned to his father for help. Within a year of his release, he was enrolled in a social entrepreneurship program at Stanford.

But Van Velzen was struck with the role luck had played in his education. So he started the Prison Scholar Fund while still locked up to give others the same opportunity he had received.

One was a former gang member in Hawaii who was supposed to take out someone in the prison.

"Just the day before he was supposed to do this with the other gang members, he gets our scholarship letter and he decides, 'Hey, maybe I'm not going to go do this hit,’” Van Velzen relates. “’I'm going to go to school instead.'"

Van Velzen says the other gang members ended up killing two people. The man who received the scholarship didn't get off scot-free. He woke up in a hospital three weeks later with 13 broken ribs for pulling out of the hit.

Van Velzen also notes the enormous price tag of the country's criminal justice system, currently costing taxpayers about $80 billion a year and imprisoning more than 2 million people.

He says while educating someone is costly, it also makes them contributors to the economy.

Van Velzen adds that other reforms are needed, too.

"Sentencing guidelines aren't passed down through the hand of God,” he states. “Those are created by society. We decide how much time somebody should do in prison for a drug offense or violent crime or property crime. We decide that, and we also decide how those people are rehabilitated."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA