Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: If California wants fewer prisoners, we need more preschoolers.

California recently authorized another $315 million in scarce state dollars to comply with court orders in an attempt to reduce our prison population. Incarcerating today’s dangerous criminals is critical to keeping our neighborhoods safer, but it carries great costs for taxpayers. Given these costs and limited resources, it seems more important than ever to seek smarter approaches to reduce the number of kids who end up in California’s prisons in the first place.

A recent report by the nonprofit crime prevention organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids has published the most recent compelling report that preschool is an effective tool for keeping kids in school and out of jail while reducing the amount of crime in our neighborhoods. Independent experts who examined 20 preschool programs throughout the country found they could actually save taxpayers $15,000 for every child served by cutting crime and incarceration rates and reducing costs for welfare and special education.

Other studies have found that at-risk children who attended preschool were 46 percent less likely to end up in prison and 29 percent more likely to graduate from high school. They are much more likely to stay in school because they are ready to learn. They go on to enter the workforce or college instead of our prison system. Conversely, children from lower-income families who don’t attend preschool lag in skills, beginning kindergarten an average of 18 months behind their peers in school readiness. Sadly, more than 50 percent of lower-income, at-risk children do not attend preschool before kindergarten.

Given these stark numbers, it’s no surprise that some of our nation’s leading law enforcement professionals like Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca are signaling that it’s time to look even more seriously at preschool and early childhood education as critical elements in the fight against crime and prison overcrowding.

“Law enforcement leaders nationwide know that one of the best ways to keep young people from dropping out of school and becoming criminals is to make sure they have a foundation of success in their earliest years. We are coming out in force to support high-quality early education and care for kids today so we can lower the devastating impact and cost of crime in the years to come,” Baca recently stated.

The compelling facts and cost savings that preschool can help us achieve have led President Barack Obama to call for a new federal-state partnership to provide all low- and moderate-income children with access to high-quality preschool. The president is calling for spending $750 billion over 10 years in federal matching funds. While this sum sounds staggering at first, a conservative cost-benefit analysis suggests that the investment will more than pay for itself for taxpayers. It costs about $50,000 per year to lock up a prisoner, but about only $4,000 per year to send a child to preschool.

Amidst all the statistics, we should never forget the human toll that is paid by crime victims when we fail to prepare our kids to succeed. Preschool can help keep kids in school and headed toward good jobs and prevent millions of unnecessary crimes each year that hurt so many families.

As a father of two preschoolers, I can see firsthand how an early start in school is helping nurture my daughters into students who are eager to learn and grow. I believe this vital first step is imperative for all children regardless of their socio-economic background.