While arresting people who have committed crimes will always be a part of our jobs in law enforcement, we know that long-term public safety also depends on putting more young people on track for lives free of the criminal justice system. That’s why we both support high-quality early childhood care and education programs that give children a foundation for success in school and beyond.
Some of these programs start before the child is even born. For example, a program known as voluntary home visiting sends trained professionals into homes of young mothers to help them understand the developmental needs of their infants and young children. These mentors teach young parents effective parenting skills, coach parents through stressful parenting situations, and teach parents to build a culture of health for themselves and their children.
These two-generation programs have had positive immediate results for children in Maine. Data show that children in Maine Families, the state’s home visiting network, are more likely to see a doctor regularly and have a safe home environment than children statewide.
We also know, and research has shown, that when families have high-quality home visits, child abuse and neglect can be reduced by 50 percent, and that creates additional future taxpayers’ savings.
While most victimized children never become violent criminals, research shows that abused children are 29 percent more likely to become violent criminals as adults, and would have otherwise avoided such crimes if not for the abuse and neglect they endured as children.
These serious criminals could spend their adult lives in and out of the correctional system. The daily cost to our taxpayers to house an inmate in a county jail averages $125 per day, which is $46,000 annually per individual. Maine Families costs an average of $2,600 a year for each family served.
The cost comparison is stark — $2,600 annually per family in prevention versus $46,000 annually in future corrections costs.
There are also a number of programs, including Early Head Start, Head Start and the state’s public preschool program, that lay the solid foundations for our young children’s critical cognitive, social and emotional skills they need for all later learning and to enable more children to start school ready to learn. When these programs are of high quality — including a developmentally appropriate focus on pre-reading and pre-math skills — children who participate can benefit for years. For example, children who receive high-quality early childhood education programs are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be employed as adults and less likely to be involved in crime.
This link between education and crime is something that we’ve known for years. If you walk into any state jail or talk to someone who has been arrested, you’ll usually hear about behavioral problems and academic struggles from their earliest years. Research often supports this point.
One study of the high-quality Perry Preschool program found that children who did not participate in the program were five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers by age 27. Another long-term study of the high-quality Chicago Child-Parent Centers found child that children left out of the program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18 and 24 percent more likely to have been incarcerated as young adults.
The good news is that Maine has made these early education programs a priority in recent years. In fact, Maine preschools are now required to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality spelled out by the National Institute for Early Education Research, and Maine Families home visiting programs are continuing to get support after Congress renewed a federal law that provides funding for these services.
But even with this progress, more can be done to ensure all our children who could benefit from these programs are able to receive them. We should also continue to improve the quality of our programs.
Some taxpayers may worry that doing this would be costly. But research shows that on average, society gains almost $30,000 per child served in early education programs, based on savings that include those from the criminal justice system.
It is clear from the research and our experience that high-quality early education can save taxpayers money and prevent crime. For these two reasons alone, we must continue to improve and expand these programs across the state so that we can continue to reap these benefits for many years to come.
Troy Morton is the sheriff of Penobscot County. Mark Hathaway is the chief of police in Bangor.