HOULTON, Maine — One of the stories that Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin often recalls involves the time he responded yet again to a domestic violence call at a particular residence.
“I would get to the home and they had this little child, he was about 4 years old, and he would come up and wrap himself around my leg,” Asselin recalled Tuesday. “He wanted me to talk to him and pay attention to him. Twenty years later, he was being arrested for violent crimes.”
It is a circumstance that Asselin believes could be prevented if state and federal officials did more to invest in high-quality early education. To emphasize that point, Asselin and Aroostook County Sheriff Jim Madore were in Houlton on Monday to read to children in the early learning program at the Houlton Head Start Center and to discuss the value of early childhood education.
The initiative was organized by the national anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. Both Madore and Asselin are members of the campaign to promote support for investing educationally in children when they are at an early age.
According to statistics provided by the organization, Maine taxpayers are spending more than $150 million a year on corrections. During Monday’s event, both Aroostook County law enforcement leaders called on federal lawmakers to support high-quality early education as a critical strategy to reduce crime, lower prison costs and save taxpayers money. Both men said they oppose cuts to early education and support efforts to strengthen and improve current programs.
Asselin said Tuesday that he is highly supportive of Head Start programs.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of how education can keep children in school and off the streets and out of our correctional system,” he said. “I have been in this profession for 36 years, and you deal with a certain segment of the population very often. And then time passes and you are dealing with their children and their children’s children. There needs to be a way to break that cycle. Like with that 4-year-old child hanging on my leg. Perhaps if he had gotten a higher-quality education, we could have broken the cycle.”
According to statistics, Maine spent $158 million in 2010 on corrections. There were more than 2,200 adults from Maine locked up in state or federal prisons on Jan. 1, 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Maine’s corrections spending has tripled from 1982 to 2008.
Asselin pointed to statistics gathered by the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which was completed in 2004.
The long-term study of the effects of high-quality early care and education on 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families showed that adults at age 40 who participated in a preschool program in their early years had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes and were more likely to have graduated from high school.
The study also found that at-risk children who did not participate in a preschool program were five times more likely to be chronic offenders by age 27 than children who did attend. Because of their increased involvement in crime, the children who did not attend were 86 percent more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison by the age of 40.
Overall, the study documented a return to society of more than $16 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program.
“I think the results of that study speak for itself,” said Asselin. “We can invest in children now or we are going to keep seeing the cost of corrections go up. We know and research shows that high-quality early childhood education can help kids start school ready to learn, graduate high school and avoid problem behaviors, reduce violent crime, improve public safety and save taxpayers far more than they cost in the long run.”
“We also know that federally funded Head Start programs serve only half of eligible children nationwide,” he said. “The Head Start teachers work with these kids daily on social and academic skills, they are fed a good meal, and they get lots of one-on-one attention. We need to make sure that the children who are eligible for Head Start get to take advantage of it.”
Madore agreed, saying that investing in children early will “reap greater dividends in the long run,” even in tight budget times.
“The costs are clear,” said Madore. “After many years working in law enforcement, we have reached an unmistakable conclusion — one way or another — we pay for at-risk kids. Either we pay on the front end by providing them a solid chance to succeed, or we pay a lot more for their failure. Providing more at-risk kids with quality early learning opportunities will help us prevent crime and reduce burdensome prison costs for years to come.”
Asselin and Madore are encouraging members of Maine’s congressional delegation, specifically U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to support maintaining the funding that was put in place for these programs in 2009 and 2010 because any cuts to these programs will hurt the 300,000 children nationally who are served in these programs.
The law enforcement leaders also agree that cutting funding for early childhood programs would be shortsighted and risky since quality early care and education programs actually save money in the long run.
Madore and Asselin also recently spoke to the Houlton Rotary Club about the initiative. The national anti-crime organization of police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, attorneys general and violence survivors, has more than 110 members in Maine and over 5,000 members nationwide.
For more information, log on to www.fightcrime.org/.