Having served 8 years as Idaho Attorney General (1983-1990) and 12 years as a member of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2016), I have gained a good perspective on crime prevention. Idaho has a fairly effective system for detecting crime and prosecuting criminals. However, if crime can be prevented in the first place, both the cost to taxpayers and the toll on society are much, much lower. Crime prevention pays big time.
When children get a bad start in life, it is certainly bad for them but it is also bad for all of us. One proven way to prevent crime is to give children a good-quality education, starting before kindergarten. Scientific studies show that children who get high quality education early in life are more likely to graduate high school, go to college and live healthier, more productive lives.
Having done extensive work on the benefits of early childhood education, economist James Heckman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work, found the benefits to be substantial. Heckman told a group of midwestern lawmakers last year that “every dollar invested in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children produces $7 to $10 return, per child, per year through better education, health, social and economic outcomes and the reduced need for social spending.”
Focusing specifically on the crime prevention benefit of early education, a 2007 study found that high-quality pre-K for just the poorest 25% of 3- and 4-year-olds would result in $77 billion in annual decreased crime and child abuse by 2050. And, a 15-year Chicago study found that kids who did not participate in early childhood education were 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.
Idaho judges dealing with both juvenile and adult offenders report similar results. Offenders who have the least education tend to have the greatest involvement in criminal activity. Once a person is in the criminal justice system, the costs of prosecution and incarceration substantially outweigh what it would have cost to give the person a good start in life by an early education program.
Idaho is one of only 6 states that does not offer state-funded preschool. It is time to correct that problem. A coalition of Idahoans, including Idaho Business for Education, the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, and Idaho Voices for Children, has been working to gain state funding for pre-K education. Patrons in two school systems in Idaho—the Basin Preschool Program in Boise County and the Caldwell School District--already have pre-K programs and have had good success with them. It is time for all Idaho kids to have the benefits of such a program.
The coalition is supporting legislation that provides state investment in voluntary pre-K options for Idaho families. People can contact their legislators to urge support for this concept. Legislators should be told that children who have access to quality, affordable preschool programs are far less likely to engage in criminal activity and therefore much less likely to be a burden on the criminal justice system later in life.
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Jim Jones is former Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and a frequent contributor to the Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls Press.