Is society better served by allowing folks in prison to prepare for gainful employment on the outside by earning college degrees? Or is prison strictly punishment, and public dollars spent on convicts beyond the bare essentials simply an extravagance?

If society is interested in dramatically reducing the percentage of repeat offenders or recidivists, then the answer is clear as day.

In the late 1960s, Rhode Island Sen. Clairborne Pell authored legislation that created a federal grant resource that helped tens of millions of Americans afford a college education.

Pell’s goal was to expand opportunity for post-secondary education for Americans who demonstrate financial need, which certainly applies to the incarcerated population.

Until the 1994 crime bill, those serving prison sentences were eligible for Pell grants that allowed them to earn degrees while behind bars. But an inane provision tucked into the bipartisan crime package Joe Biden helped move through Congress stripped incarcerated people from being able to receive them any longer.

Some of the congressmen back in the '90s who “got tough on crime” by taking Pell grants away from prisoners went on to be indicted for various forms of corruption themselves, and a couple even served time. But most politicians already have degrees, so the irony may have been lost on them. Congress now has the chance to lift the ban, and if the administration elected in a couple weeks is serious about criminal justice reform, it will urge them to do so.

Joseph Jackson, who heads the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, is proof that funding accredited degree programs is a pathway to rehabilitation. He is the first Mainer to earn not only an undergraduate but also a graduate degree while in prison.

He told me that demand is high in the system, and while many prisoners have pursued degrees through a program with the University of Maine at Augusta, the prospects for successful re-entry for those without post-secondary education are daunting at best, and are more often just grim.

Fortunately, Maine is one of a handful of states granted temporary waivers from the ban by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, though the waiver is expiring. Generous private support from Sunshine Lady Foundation, whose founder Doris Buffet passed away, helped underwrite the UMA program. State authorities have helped to the extent they can, encouraging inmates to focus on education.

“The Maine Department of Corrections is an avid supporter of educational services for the incarcerated population, ranging from Adult Basic Education services to Graduate Studies,” Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell told me. "Funding for these services, especially college programming, continues to be an area of need and expansion, which we support.”

Commissioner Randall Liberty, who has championed such programs since his time as the warden of the Supermax in Warren, spoke at the most recent UMA graduation ceremony, where 20 students received degrees while serving in the system in a program that has graduated over 100 since its inception.

The economics are clear. Research by the Rand Corp. shows for every dollar spent on helping those in prison earn degrees, the taxpayer saves five. Why? The cost per prisoner annually is $55,000, Jackson said.

By striking at recidivism at its core — giving those who leave prison the means to earn legal livelihoods — getting a degree substantially reduces the likelihood that person will commit another crime. A study by the American Correctional Association conducted in Indiana last year showed that those who leave prison having earned a college degree are nearly 50% less likely to ever return.

Businesses benefit from a wider labor pool, and the returning citizens become taxpayers themselves. There are also strong moral arguments involving human dignity and redemption, as the Bible counsels throughout. Yet in terms of public safety as well as dollars and cents, simple math makes the case.

When the thunder of the coming election subsides, fast action on lifting the ban could be an easy win for both parties. Trump has made some important progress on criminal justice reform, and eased the ban. Biden has sounded more willing in the last year to support a permanent change should he be elected.

This is a simple litmus test of Washington’s seriousness on the issue. Let’s hope that when the political contest is over, the new Congress and the next president will show they’re willing to make a modest investment in a safer, richer and arguably more just society.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.