Justice and Due Process

How Inmates Are Earning Their Law Degrees While Incarcerated

Maureen Onyelobi is currently serving a life sentence in Minnesota. She also happens to be the first currently incarcerated individual to attend a law school approved by the American Bar Association. In fact, she is all set to attend class via Zoom from prison. 

Maureen represents a class of inmates that will be given the opportunity to earn a fully accredited Juris Doctor while serving a prison sentence.

The Mitchell Hamline School of Law is the first law school in the country to offer this unique program. Currently, the law school is being granted the ability to admit two incarcerated students each academic year and will allow admitted students five years to complete their studies. 

Too often, the narrative surrounding incarcerated individuals is that we should simply lock them up and throw away the key. However, this is an exceptionally short-sighted view. For one, it does not take into account that some ex-offenders want to learn from their mistakes and make reparations for their actions within the community. Also, many incarcerated individuals will be released at some point. Upon release, if such persons have not been afforded the opportunities to better themselves while behind bars, they will often return to a pattern of crime. This re-offense is called recidivism. Recidivism can cost taxpayers nearly $150,000 per incident. 

A large factor in determining recidivism rates is the income previously incarcerated individuals are able to obtain. Unfortunately for many ex-offenders, income is tied to education level, and with less than 10% of this group taking any college coursework, and less than 1% earning a college degree, many are relegated to a cycle of poverty. Such poverty breeds desperation, while subsequently leading to more crime and less safe communities. 

If Utah, and the rest of the country, hope to keep communities safe, allow ex-offenders to be the best version of themselves, and reduce financial burdens on taxpayers, it is imperative that prisoners have access to an education while behind bars. 

The Mitchell Hamline School of Law provides a perfect example of how this can be done. It allows incarcerated individuals to participate virtually in classes and is privately funded. States like Utah and their colleges should incorporate similar systems immediately into correctional facilities.