Four of Benton County's top law enforcers joked and laughed while taking time Wednesday to read a book about police officers to preschoolers at Benton Franklin Head Start in Richland, but their visit was about a serious subject.
The longtime cops and prosecutor spoke out about the lack of funding for quality early childhood education programs and how investing in kids can reduce crime and save money.
Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane said he has spent more than 20 years in law enforcement dealing with offenders who often talk about not getting a good education as the start of their path down the wrong road.
"It becomes very clear to us that we need to invest in programs to prevent kids from being criminals in the first place," Keane said. "We invest now or we're going to continue to pay later."
Keane, joined by Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller, Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg and Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner, discussed a new report released by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national anti-crime organization.
The nonprofit group is made up of more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and violence survivors -- including more than 225 in Washington -- and is tasked to look at what works and what doesn't to prevent crime and violence, officials said.
Skinner noted that the report showed that $1 billion is spent each year on prisons in Washington, while $139 million is spent on early childhood education.
"We know that while crime doesn't pay, we pay for crime," he said.
Skinner also said that in comparing the cost of corrections to the cost of preschool, "we invest just three dimes in early learning for every dollar we spend on locking people up."
The report provided research from various programs, including the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan and Chicago Child-Parent Centers, which have been operating since the 1960s.
By age 40, children who didn't attend the Perry Preschool Program were two times more likely to become chronic offenders with more than 10 arrests and 50 percent more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, according to data referenced from the "2005 Lifetime Effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40" report.
It also was noted that a study found children who did not attend the Chicago early learning program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18, according to information in a 2001 study on long-term effects of an early childhood intervention on educational achievement and juvenile arrest.
Hohenberg said the studies paint the picture of the challenges law enforcement and the community face if the proper investments aren't made in high-quality early education programs.
"We have to make tough choices and we have to send a message that early education is vital," he said.
Laura Wells, the state director for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Washington, said the message needs to be sent to state and federal officials that funding Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program is essential.
"We absolutely cannot stop investing in programs that we know will save money and cut crime down the road," she said.
At a minimum, the funding levels need to be maintained, she said. But ideally, funding would be increased.
Right now, however, pending budget cuts at the federal level could force reductions in the number of disadvantage students served by early education programs, she said. State officials also are trying to find a way to address budget deficits while fulfilling a mandate from the state Supreme Court to fully pay for K-12 education.
The possible cuts to early education programs come at a time when only half of the state's eligible kids are enrolled in those program, which Miller said represents "thousands of missed opportunities."
"It comes down to dollars and sense," he said. "Quality early education saves dollars and make sense."
-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; email@example.com