In The People's Blog, Updates from Jo

This blog is written by Jared Freedman, who’s the Chief of Staff on our state Senate team and a Leverett native. His story begins with a constituent question which led us to finding an error in state policy and helping to get it corrected.


When Senator Comerford spoke to the Council of Service Agencies in July, she noted all of the bills that spawned from the ideas and concerns of constituents, many of which have now had hearings and been reported out of committee. And when I look at the issues our Legislative Director Brian or our Legislative Aide Ania are researching or drafting language to address, and the concerns that our District Director Elena and our Director of Constituent Engagement Sam are engaging with state and local officials to resolve, it’s clear how much of the agenda for our office on any given day is driven by what we’re hearing from constituents. And it also becomes clear just how much raising your voices matters.

Recently, some constituent outreach came my way which lead to a government regulation being changed for the better in a matter of months.

In July, we received an email from Stephanie, an educator from Florence, who had recently attended a conference of community colleges focused on ending inequities in higher education. At the conference, Stephanie attended a seminar on the power of bringing post-secondary education to incarcerated individuals, and learned that Massachusetts is one of 14 states that puts up additional regulatory barriers that prevent people who are or have been incarcerated from receiving a college education.

Stephanie wanted to know if we were able to do anything to change these regulations. I knew just where to begin, and here I’ll give you a window into the workflow of our office. The first thing I did was ask one of our hard-working interns, Maya McCollum to research this. Maya is now a junior at UMass Amherst where she studies economics. She’s clearly getting a good education, because her research uncovered an issue which was not previously understood.

In 1994 the federal government misguidedly banned prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. This ban applies to federal and state prisoners, but not those in local or county institutions, or those in juvenile justice facilities. However, Maya reported that anyone on probation, parole, or released from prison is in most circumstances again eligible to receive a Pell Grant.

Maya also found that in Massachusetts, the eligibility guidance for receiving a grant, loan, or tuition waiver is basically the same as it is for Pell Grants – so if you’re incarcerated, you’re not eligible for a Pell Grant and you’re also not eligible for state aid.

And then, while digging through the fifth edition of the Office of Student Financial Aid’s Student Financial Assistance Attestation Guide, as Maya sometimes does, she found that Massachusetts adds the qualification: “has not been convicted of an offense involving the possession or sale of illegal drugs and/or has not been incarcerated in a federal or state penal institution.”

As written, this language would prohibit anyone who spent time in a state prison from receiving a grant, loan, or tuition waiver award – for the rest of their lives.

Senator Comerford believed the Department of Higher Education should be amenable to revising this regulation, so I emailed a colleague there who got their legal team working on it.

One month later, the Department of Higher Education’s legal team responded that the guidance Maya found was drafted in error, and they are now redrafting the guidance to permit those who were incarcerated in the past to be eligible for state financial aid.

We emailed our findings and this update back to Stephanie, and to the wonderful folks at the Vera Institute who authored the report that Stephanie heard. One thing lead to another, and we’ve now been put in touch with the MIT’s Educational Justice Institute to discuss how we can collaborate to further their work on this issue.

We’ll see where that leads. On any given day, our team of five staff, supplemented by interns and public health fellows might be researching 20 different initiatives. And then Senator Comerford will return from a town hall event with 20 more. Some of these initiatives result in laws or regulations being changed, and other times we hit a roadblock and are forced to return to the starting line to think up a new plan of attack. One thing I know for sure is that we’ll continue to devote our time and resources where constituents point us. Because as my boss always says: we work for you.

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Senator Jo Comerford speaks on the Senate floor about hemp