TWO decades ago, with violent and property crime spiking and the public in a get-tough-on-crime mood, state lawmakers banned the use of state money for college education in state prisons. It was seen as a luxury for thugs.

Time to reconsider that decision. Crime rates are at historic lows. The state murder rate is at the 1967 level.

Just as important, an unequivocal consensus among researchers has emerged: Education in prison is one of the surest, most cost-effective tools to prevent recidivism.

Last year, in the largest-ever study of correctional education programs, the RAND Corporation concluded that inmates who participated in those programs had 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than inmates who did not participate. Similarly, a study last year by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the Legislature’s nonpartisan think tank, concluded that offering inmates basic or postsecondary education in prison had an astonishing cost-benefit ratio of $19.62 for every $1 spent.

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The reason is that education is a proven boost up the income ladder. About a third of inmates enter prison without a high-school education. Leaving with a hard-earned degree raises the odds of a job.

A proposal to end the ban, House Bill 2486, sponsored by Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, cleared the House Higher Education committee this week.

This bill does not take money away from kids who didn’t go to prison. It simply lifts the ban, and gives the Department of Corrections flexibility to use some of its existing $16 million education funding. Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said the department would be “austere” if given that option. Warner made the idea a priority, in part because the incentive of education for well-behaved inmates eases prison unrest.

A handful of volunteer or philanthropic-funded programs already provide college education in prison, including University Beyond Bars at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Kudos to those efforts, but the decades of experience render a clear verdict about postsecondary education in prison: It should be a government function as well. Fiscal conservatives and social liberals can unite behind the idea that the state can avoid building new expensive prisons — merely by letting inmates crack open some college textbooks.

Lift the ban. Pass HB 2486.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).