October 3, 2013

Maine jail officials back report calling for early education

The report says a greater investment in preschool programs will translate to fewer costly incarcerations.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Alberto Gonzalez Sr. says his parents had little education and he dropped out of school when he was in sixth grade.

click image to enlarge

A group of Cumberland County Jail inmates takes a pre-test Wednesday to determine whether they are ready to take a test toward earning their General Educational Development degree. Several of the inmates said they had dropped out of school.

David Hench/Staff Writer

“I made some bad choices,” he said. Since then, much of his life has been spent in prison. Now he’s nearing completion of a GED through a course at Cumberland County Jail where he is awaiting sentencing on a probation violation. Gonzalez hopes the degree will help him be productive and stay clear of jail in the future.

But for Gonzalez and for society, it’s too little, too late.

“I can’t tell you how many meetings we have on how do we keep them from coming back,” said Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce. “We should be talking about how we keep them from coming here in the first place.”

Joyce was among southern Maine law enforcement leaders who participated in a news conference Wednesday at Cumberland County Jail in support of early-childhood education programs to improve results in school and reduce the number of people in jail.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit advocacy group funded primarily by charitable foundations, released a report Wednesday that it says shows that an investment in children before they go to school will pay off with better graduation rates and less crime.

Kim Gore, state director for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, said the group is working to build support for a plan outlined in the Obama administration’s 2014 budget that would spend $75 billion over 10 years to expand preschool education programs and voluntary home visits to new parents.

States would develop their own programs, meeting certain established standards, which would be funded 90 percent by the federal government for the first three years, Gore said.

The report said that $75 billion is what the country spends annually on incarcerating the 2 million people currently in custody. Maine spends $161 million a year to keep 2,000 people in jails and prisons, the report said.

The report says that 54 percent of the people in Maine jails and prisons don’t have a high school diploma. It’s 70 percent nationally.

The group cites studies done in Michigan and Chicago that show that high-quality early-childhood education can help overcome some of the inherent disadvantages children from low- and moderate-income families face. Col. Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail, said children from poor families are more likely to arrive at school with limited vocabulary, difficulty with impulse control and a greater frequency of defiant behavior. Those can be risk factors for jail later in life.

“The path is most often lined with a series of school failures,” Westrum said.

The report, released Wednesday, pictures Joyce on the cover above the words: “I’m the guy you pay later.” He said it costs about $100 a day to house an inmate at the jail, and there are currently 470 inmates either awaiting court appearances or serving sentences.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said studies suggest an investment in early-childhood education in Maine would lead to 6,700 more high school graduates and 200 fewer inmates, for a savings of about $16 million.

“Crime doesn’t pay, but like it or not, we all end up paying for crime,” Sauschuck said. “No child is destined at birth to end up in jail. We would all prefer to see people in caps and gowns rather than handcuffs and jumpsuits.”

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @Mainehenchman

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