PORTLAND — As Portland’s chief of police and Cumberland County’s sheriff, we know we can’t simply arrest, prosecute and incarcerate our way out of crime problems. We have to implement strategies that keep people from turning to crime in the first place.
Education needs to be the focal point of that strategy. Nationwide, seven out of 10 inmates in state prisons don’t have a high school diploma. In Maine, 54 percent of prisoners have less than a high school education.
That’s a troubling statistic. But we know the journey that brings many inmates to our jails doesn’t happen overnight. The path for many at-risk kids begins when they start kindergarten with limited vocabularies and without key pre-literacy and pre-math skills. They can also have problems with behavior and impulse control that make it difficult to get along with others, thereby exacerbating academic challenges year after year.
Evidence that quality preschool experiences can significantly reduce these challenges is found in numerous reports released by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an organization of more than 5,000 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 served disadvantaged children in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Researchers randomly assigned children to participate or not participate in this high-quality program, and assessed outcomes for all the children for several decades. Forty years later, the research showed, those left out of the program were 50 percent more likely to be arrested for violent crimes than those assigned to take part in the program.
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.
More recent reviews of other, newer, high-quality state preschool programs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina show they also have had a proven impact on school success. Outcomes range from fewer behavior problems to less special education and from fewer kids being held back in school to development of math and literacy skills that lasted well into elementary school.
These programs are fiscally smart because, studies have also shown, quality preschool for kids from low-income families can return an average net economic benefit to society of $22,000 for every child served.
For these reasons and more, law enforcement leaders all across Maine strongly back investment in preschool as a first step toward reducing future crime.
The good news is that we now have a winning formula for doing just that. Thanks to the hard work of the Maine Legislature’s Education Committee and allies across the state, we now have an additional $4 million in annual startup funding for new and expanded voluntary public pre-kindergarten in Maine.
The new legislation that provides the funding establishes high standards, encourages community collaboration, targets resources to the most at-risk students and creates an early childhood coordinator position at the Maine Department of Education to oversee this work.
The even better news is that there is new federal legislation that will enable us to serve even more kids with quality programs.
A state-federal partnership known as the Strong Start for America’s Children Act will provide significant resources to states for the creation, improvement and expansion of quality preschool programs. Maine, like all states, would be in the driver’s seat when it comes to decisions about how to make best use of the funding to serve the families who need it most.
While this proposal is wise in its own right, its bipartisan sponsorship also demonstrates that quality preschool is one area of common ground among elected leaders and people from all walks of life. In 2013 and 2014, Republican and Democratic governors of 26 states, including Maine, put in place significant expansions of state preschool programs.
In doing so, they’re acting on solid research that makes an open-and-shut case for quality preschool as one of the wisest investments we can make for kids today and public safety in the years to come.