You are here

Hitting the books instead of the cell block

Philadelphia community college gives felons the chance to earn college credits
University Business, March 2016
Reentry Project class speaker Jamil Watson addressed his peers at a completion ceremony in December 2015.
Reentry Project class speaker Jamil Watson addressed his peers at a completion ceremony in December 2015.

New momentum has built behind higher education’s pivotal role in helping prison inmates turn their life around and re-enter society. So, what if a city offered convicted felons a college education instead of a jail sentence?

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office partners with the Community College of Philadelphia on the Future Forward initiative, which gives felons convicted of nonviolent crimes the chance to complete 27 college credits within a year, instead of serving time. Students must be at least 24 years old, hold a high school degree or GED, and be eligible for admission at the community college; those with debts or poor academic records with the college don’t qualify.

If the participant finishes the credits and remains arrest-free during the school year, the conviction will be expunged from their criminal record.

Still in its pilot phase, Future Forward hosts four participants selected by the district attorney’s office. Tara Timberman, project founder and coordinator, says she plans to have 10 to 15 participants for the 2016-17 school year.

Through the program, students will receive structured support from a case manager, job readiness workshops and cognitive behavioral therapy groups. The court will hold monthly status meetings with each student to determine program compliance.

The district attorney’s office covers students’ transportation costs, and the University of Pennsylvania provides part-time facilitators and therapists from its Graduate School of Social Policy and Practice. Students get no direct financial assistance, but do receive guidance on applying for federal aid and grants.

Future Forward expands the multi-faceted Reentry Support Project that the Community College of Philadelphia launched in 2010, says Timberman.

In that program, Philadelphia prison inmates can take mixed-enrollment courses that also are offered to Temple University and community college law students. After release, former inmates who enroll in the college can seek continued support through academic coaching and financial guidance.

They join a learning cohort comprised of other former inmates; this group is designed to ease the transition to academic life for individuals who previously thought higher ed was out of their reach.

Future Forward students are placed in this cohort, as well. The goal is that sharing their peers’ experiences with the justice system will act as a further deterrent to criminal activity.

With 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated and seven out of 10 inmates returning to jail after release, early interventions like Future Forward may offer hope for those whose opportunities have been limited by circumstance and lack of positive encouragement, says Cameron Kline, communications director for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

“We need to treat the whole person and the symptoms of the crime,” Kline says. “After all, in this society, having a felony on your record is an economic death sentence.”