Report: Early childhood education programs could cut crime and save money in Merced County

aibarra@mercedsunstar.comMay 11, 2014 

Children from the Los Banos Child Development Migrant Head Start Center are seen in this 2011 file photo. A newly released report estimates that education before kindergarten can save communities about $22,000 for each student served from a combination of reduced criminal justice, health care costs and increased lifetime earnings.

THADDEUS MILLER — Los Banos Enterprise file

Investing in high-quality early education programs can prevent crime and save money in the long run, especially in areas such as Merced County, according to a new report.

The report, released late last week by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national anti-crime organization, reveals there is a direct correlation between preschool enrollment, high school graduation rates and annual crime rates.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is made up of nearly 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys and other law enforcement leaders who work to inform policymakers and the general public about approaches proven to cut crime.

California members are working on making universal early education a priority on the state budget, according to the organization.

The report estimates that education before kindergarten can save communities about $22,000 for each student served from a combination of reduced criminal justice, health care costs and increased lifetime earnings.

In Merced County, 55 percent of eligible children ages 3 and 4 are enrolled in preschool, according to the report. Out of 4,938 eligible children, 2,726 are enrolled.

The report’s data also showed Merced has an 84 percent graduation rate and about 1,500 violent crimes a year.

According to Merced County District Attorney Larry D. Morse II, many children, especially those from low-income families, are not receiving the stimulation needed to excel in school.

“We have some serious problems with school performance and dropout rates,” Morse said. “We need to focus on early education to prepare children for kindergarten and produce more high school graduates.”

The report revealed that the state’s budget crisis has led to more than $170 million in cuts to state-funded early education programs since 2008.

In the 2013-14 budget, California added $25 million for state-funded preschools, but Fight Crime believes more can be done.

Citrus Heights Police Chief Christopher Boyd, a member of the anti-crime organization, said investment in early education is critical when it comes to alleviating prison and jail overcrowding.

According to the report, a comprehensive study found that children who did not attend preschool were 70 percent more likely to be arrested by age 18. Just 41 percent of eligible preschoolers in the state are enrolled in preschool programs.

The report also found that 44 percent of prisoners in the state do not have a high school diploma or GED certificate.

“We’re still not investing enough in early education,” Boyd said. “Our officers spend their time every day working with at-risk kids. We try to do everything we can to help these kids in their decision-making, but it’s overwhelming.”

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said that by investing in early education the state can save up to $1.1 billion in correctional costs alone.

“We need to work to keep our kids in school, because truancy leads very quickly to criminal behavior,” Rosen said, “and then this becomes very expensive.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or aibarra@mercedsunstar.com.

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