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Concord Law Enforcement Leaders: Invest in Early Education or Foot Bigger Prison Bill Later

CONCORD, NH (Sept. 15, 2009) — At a news conference today, Merrimack County Attorney Katherine Rogers, Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams and Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard released a research brief indicating that high-quality early learning programs for at-risk children ages birth to five can significantly reduce crime and ultimately cut corrections costs by a quarter or more.

Currently in New Hampshire, there are almost five thousand incarcerated adults in jails and state prisons, with corrections costs exceeding $101 million every year. The county attorneys and sheriff said that New Hampshire would save about $25 million in taxpayer dollars if it cut prison costs by a quarter by investing in early learning. A year of state lock-up costs taxpayers $32,000 a year — more expensive than a year’s tuition at University of New Hampshire, which costs around $22,000.

With kids heading back to school, law enforcement officials are urging Senators Shaheen and Gregg, as well as the rest of the New Hampshire Congressional Delegation, to support new federal legislation to implement the proposed Early Learning Challenge Fund, which will provide $1 billion per year for states to expand and improve their early childhood development initiatives. Law enforcement also urge state legislators to invest in early education and care for New Hampshire’s youngest at-risk children.

“Public policy is about setting priorities today that affect all of us tomorrow,” Ms. Rogers said. “When you invest in early learning for the youngest kids, you can get them on the path to college, not prison.”

A long-term study of the high-quality Perry Preschool in Michigan found that by age 40, the kids left out of the program were 85 percent more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison. Another study detailed in the report showed that at-risk kids who did not attend Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers were 24 percent more likely to be incarcerated than similar kids who did attend.

Hilliard emphasized the cost-saving benefits of investing in high-quality early childhood education and care, especially for at-risk young children. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis found that the Perry Preschool program had an annual rate of return on investment of 16 percent. The majority of the cost savings in the Perry study came from reductions in crime and incarceration.

“For those of us in law enforcement, we need to use every tool possible to combat crime and keep our streets safe,” Sheriff Hilliard said. “Early learning initiatives don’t fire a gun or catch fugitives, but we know the best way to fight crime is to nip it in the bud. This is a fact: Early education reduces crime and saves lives.”

The new Early Learning Challenge Fund will support early education programs, such as Head Start, Early Head Start, pre-kindergarten or quality child care, which offer constructive environments for the healthy growth and development of young children in the first five years of life. The education committee in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in July that includes support for the Early Learning Challenge Fund.

County Attorney Reams said that more support is needed at the state and federal level to ensure that quality early childhood programs are available and affordable to more families. Costs for enrolling young children in early learning programs can run as high as $7,300 a year, which many families are unable to afford.

The need to increase access to high-quality early learning opportunities is great. For example, the federally-funded Head Start program for children in poverty serves only half of eligible children nationwide due to inadequate funding. And the youngest children, from birth to age 3, are even more dramatically underserved. In fact, Early Head Start serves only about three percent of eligible infants and toddlers nationally.

The research shows that quality is essential to getting the crime and incarceration reduction benefits of early learning. The Early Learning Challenge Fund legislation will enable states to adopt best practices, including higher qualifications for teachers and caregivers. In addition, it encourages smaller class sizes, and early screening and treatment of mental, emotional and behavioral problems, as well as parent coaching, which teaches at-risk families ways to promote their children’s development.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years in law enforcement, it’s this: you pay now or you pay more later. You can pay now by investing in early care and education for our youngest kids, or you pay much more later through unsafe communities and prison costs,” Mr Reams said.

Katherine Rogers, Jim Reams and Scott Hilliard are members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an anti-crime organization led by 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and violence survivors nationwide, including 35 in New Hampshire.