A program that allows people in New Jersey take college level courses while they’re locked up in prison is being expanded.

A new law gives incarcerated people the same rights as anyone else to apply for and receive a grant or scholarship through a state-administered program. The prisoner has to have been a resident of New Jersey for at least a year prior to being placed behind bars.

“This allows a person who has made a mistake and is working to pay off that debt to society by being incarcerated to have an opportunity to be successful,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic, who sponsored the measure to expand the state Scholarship and Transformative in Prisons Consortium, or NJ-STEP,

“This is life-changing and transformative, educating folks who are incarcerated helps to reduce recidivism. It provides them with a skill set so they can look for secure employment upon release," she said.

“We want to make sure as New Jersey that we have an educated workforce prepared to return to the community and that these individuals have the opportunity to succeed.”

Sumter said if an inmate gets a grant or scholarship, he or she can continue their studies once they are released from prison if their program has not been completed.

She said some inmates had previously been part of a program set up with Rutgers University that allowed them to take college courses, and it worked out quite well.

Sumter said all prison inmates, even those serving time for rape and murder, are now eligible to apply for higher ed financial aid. However, the new law stipulates that the inmate must receive approval from the state Department of Corrections to enroll in an eligible institution while they’re behind bars. Those include Raritan Valley Community College, The College of New Jersey, Rutgers and Princeton University.

The New Jersey Office of Legislative Services estimates the new law will result in annual increases in state expenditures of between $600,000 and $900,000.

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