Investment in Early Childhood Education Will Cut Crime and Save Money | Commentary

Posted October 30, 2013 at 2:30pm

Take a look at the criminal records of the almost 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. and you’ll probably assume their troubles began when they committed their crimes. As sheriffs who manage facilities housing tens of thousands of inmates each year, we know for many the journey to jail begins much earlier.

Nationwide, 7 out of 10 people locked up in state prisons don’t have a high-school diploma. In getting to the root of the problem, it all boils down to a strong foundation for success provided by high-quality preschool and early education programs. As sheriffs and leaders of large law enforcement agencies, these programs are especially important to both of us. We both were among the more than 1,000 law enforcement leaders who signed a letter urging support for a new state-federal partnership proposed by the Obama administration. The proposal would provide states with $99 billion to initiate and strengthen quality preschool and early childhood programs.

The proposal puts states in the driver’s seat when it comes to designing and implementing their own programs. We believe it will have a tremendous impact in our states, eventually reducing the number of people incarcerated every year in Minnesota and Kansas by 900 and 950, respectively. It will also save our taxpayers a combined total of $83 million every year.

If those figures don’t convince you, consider the immediate impact for kids and communities today: fewer instances of child abuse and neglect, fewer behavior problems and more children arriving at school ready to learn. We also note that an independent analysis of 20 different studies of preschool programs showed, on average, a “profit” to society of $15,000 for every child served based on lower costs for crime, welfare and other things.

Proof is found in research data presented in several reports by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonpartisan organization of more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, attorneys general and violence survivors. The group highlights longitudinal studies that followed children who participated in high-quality early learning programs for several decades, along with emerging research on programs in a number of states.

One study focused on the Perry Preschool Project, which gave disadvantaged children in Ypsilanti, Mich., access to quality early education. Researchers randomly assigned children to participate or not participate in this high-quality program and then assessed outcomes for all of the children involved for several decades. The research showed that 40 years later individuals who participated in the program were 46 percent less likely to have been sentenced to prison or jail. A study of children who were served by Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers also demonstrated strong crime reduction impacts. By age 18, those who did not participate were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids has also reviewed results of several high-quality state preschool programs that have also achieved remarkable results. Children who participated in programs in Michigan and New Jersey were far less likely to be held back in school. Children in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were far less likely to need special education, and those in New Jersey and North Carolina started school with reading and math skills that lasted well into the elementary-school years.

Fight Crime reports also highlight the value of voluntary home-visiting programs. These programs pair willing young parents with trained home visitors who reduce child abuse and neglect by helping them understand their children’s health needs, create safer home environments and develop parenting skills.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids’ latest report, “I’m the Guy You Pay Later,” highlights incarceration and taxpayer savings for all 50 states. It also makes a point that’s relevant to law enforcement and everyday citizens alike. Right now we spend about $75 billion every year to lock up criminals in jails and prisons. That’s 10 times the average yearly cost of the preschool proposal.

This is a simple choice: pay for high-quality preschool and early childhood programs for at-risk kids today or pay the costs associated with fighting crime in the coming years.

Rich Stanek is the sheriff of Hennepin County, Minn., and Don Ash is the sheriff of Wyandotte County, Kan.