As Sheriff of Sagadahoc County, I often speak to community and state organizations about the challenges we face in law enforcement. Recently, I spoke to the Maine Legislature’s Children’s Caucus, only this time I talked about programs that help prevent crime, instead of the aftermath of criminal activity.

I represented Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national anti-crime organization made up of more than 5,000 law enforcement leaders across the nation, including about 140 in Maine. We focus on research-proven programs that help children get the right start in life, stay on track, and avoid crime. We help the public, community leaders, and policymakers understand the benefits for community safety of investing in quality programs for our youngest children.

As a member of law enforcement, I bring a unique perspective on high-quality child care and early learning — its impact on crime. I have been in law enforcement for 40 years and believe that government’s most fundamental responsibility is to protect the public’s safety. There is no substitute for tough law enforcement. But once a crime has been committed, lives have already been shattered. Law enforcement knows that we will never fix the crime problem solely through arrests and imprisonment. We can save lives, hardship — and money — by investing in programs that can keep children from growing up to become criminals in the first place.

Early childhood experts tell us that the first five years of life are a critical time for a child’s physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. What is equally important, but less well known, is that quality early learning programs can also significantly reduce the chances of a child growing up to be involved in crime. Research clearly shows that high-quality early care and education for at-risk kids not only reduces their likelihood of committing a crime later in life, but also provides far greater savings than costs.

In addition to being the Sagadahoc Sheriff, I am also a father, a grandfather, and an active community member. I spend a fair amount of time at the Bath YMCA, which has a large child care program. I do not profess to be an expert on child care; however, I can tell you as someone who has worked with many child care providers, that they are amazing individuals. They are the key to parents being able to go to work and be fully attentive to their jobs because parents know their kids are safe and well cared for. Sadly, these very same people to whom we entrust our infants and children for 8 to 10 hours a day are at the bottom 2 percent for wages, compared to other sectors. Even though many of these child care educators have early childhood training and degrees, they are paid far less than their K-3 peers.

Child care is in a crisis because parents who need to work cannot find quality child care for their children and often when they can find it, the cost of that child care is far more than the parent can afford to pay. It is no wonder so many jobs remain unfilled. Without adequate child care we will not have an adequate workforce. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids’ sister organization, Ready Nation, has research showing that it costs Maine an estimated $403 million in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue due to lack of available child care for infants and toddlers alone.

Fortunately, there is a measure before the Legislature that can help reduce the disparity in wages for child care educators and assist working parents to pay for child care.

LD 1726 An Act to Build Maine’s Economy by Supporting Child Care for Working Families, sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, will help bring child care educators up to a more livable wage by doubling the existing monthly wage supplement from $200 to $400 per month. This would increase the average hourly wage for child care educators to $17.20 per hour, or about $35,700 a year. It is a modest gain, but crucial to help recruit the 1100 child care educators needed to meet current licensed capacity and begin to reduce the long wait lists for child care spots.

I hope legislators and the governor will support increased state funding for child care which will help parents, child care workers, businesses and, most importantly, our children. It is an investment Maine cannot afford to ignore.
Joel Merry is sheriff of Sagadahoc County and a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

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