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Lee Baca: Early childhood education key to preventing crime

Posted: March 26, 2010 9:11 a.m.
Updated: March 26, 2010 9:11 a.m.
Recent statistics indicate that crime in many communities across California has dropped. It's a testament to the joint efforts of our political leaders and law enforcement agencies working together to improve our quality of life.

However, we cannot rest, but must continue to pursue strategies that will ensure crime in our communities will continue to decline.

There are numerous methods that can be employed to deter criminal activity, including in the Santa Clarita Valley. One of these might surprise you, and that is the impact of quality early childhood education.

Research tells us children who attend a quality preschool program get a better start in life, perform better in school and are more likely to grow up and become productive, tax-paying citizens.

What many people may not know is that there's an additional benefit to a quality preschool education, one that affects us all.

Research shows that children who receive a quality early childhood education are less likely to turn to crime later in life. That is an outcome that has major implications for our communities, as public safety routinely ranks among the top priorities listed by the public and elected officials.

The question then becomes: Should we invest resources to ensure access to effective and affordable early education programs, especially for children most at risk for school failure and future criminal activity?

The answer is yes if we wish to produce future generations of productive citizens who are disinclined to get in trouble with the law.

We simply cannot afford not to invest in early childhood education because the evidence is clear: Early education helps reduce crime.

According to an independent survey by anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California, an overwhelming 71 percent of the nation's law enforcement leaders chose the provision of more after-school and educational child care programs - such as preschools - as the most effective strategy for reducing youth violence and crime. Furthermore, consider Michigan's High/Scope Perry Preschool Program, which served 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families. Children randomly assigned to a control group who did not attend preschool were five times more likely to have become chronic lawbreakers by age 27 than those assigned to attend the preschool program.

Today, about half of 4-year-olds in Los Angeles County do not attend preschool. Publicly funded programs like state preschool and Head Start are available to some, but only the poorest families qualify and spaces are scarce.

At any given time, tens of thousands of children languish on the county's centralized eligibility list, a waiting list for spaces in publicly funded programs. Private preschools often cost too much for working and middle-class families.

That is why we believe if California intends to continue to reduce crime, additional state and federal money should be found to invest in early education.

Research by the Santa Monica-based RAND Corp. shows children with the largest gaps in school readiness and achievement - and those who need early childhood education the most - are least likely to be enrolled in high-quality preschool programs.

You may wonder if taxpayer money spent to expand preschool accessibility is a wise public investment. According to the RAND Corp., for every dollar we invest in quality preschool, the public saves $2.62 in crime prevention, special education needs and other social costs. Other prominent studies show an even greater rate-of-return to our society.

The message is clear. Quality preschool programs are a wise public investment, and one of our most effective weapons against crime. In fact, it costs about $49,000 a year to incarcerate a young person. That would cover the annual enrollment of eight to 10 children in a quality preschool. Despite that, the number of children enrolled in California preschools remains well below the national average.

There's little doubt that making quality preschool programs available to more children is crucial to an effective, balanced crime-prevention strategy. To not ensure that all of California's children have access to such programs puts every California family at greater risk of crime and violence.

That is why we urge policy makers across California to place increased access to quality preschool high on their agenda.

Sheriff Lee Baca is the head of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Gary Mangiofico, Ph.D., is CEO of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, a nonprofit organization that funds quality preschool programs for about 10,000 4-year-olds annually in Los Angeles County. Their column reflects their own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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