Alabama state government could save millions of dollars in future prison and crime costs by investing more in pre-K education, according to a report released today by the nonpartisan, anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
To draw attention to this opportunity, two members of the Fight Crime group, Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls and Birmingham Police Capt. Henry Irby, plan to visit and read to children today at the Festival Head Start Center on Crestwood Boulevard.
"We are facing a major crisis with our corrections system at 195 to 200 percent of capacity," said Falls. "You can either spend more on the front end for education, or more on the back end for prisons."
Today's report, "Pay Now or Pay Much More Later," details research that followed the fates of children over multiple decades. Results show that high-quality pre-kindergarten education can slash the chances of a child growing up to be a criminal:
• The Chicago Child-Parent Centers found that by age 26, the children who did not get pre-K education were 27 percent more likely to have been arrested for a felony and were 39 percent more likely to have spent time in jail or prison, compared with children who got high-quality pre-K education.
• A similar study by the Perry Preschool Project found that disadvantaged Ypsilanti, Mich., children who did not get high-quality preschool education were five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers -- with five or more arrests -- at age 27, and were 86 percent more likely to have been sentenced to jail or prison by age 40, compared with a randomized control group.
Alabama has one of the greatest chances in the nation to benefit from investing in pre-K education.
It's one of only 10 states with pre-K programs that meet all 10 quality benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research. But because of limited funding, that high-quality education doesn't reach enough children. Only 6 percent of 4-year-olds in Alabama -- fewer than 4,000 children -- have been able to get this pre-K education, leaving Alabama ranked 33rd for enrollment.
An additional 16 percent of Alabama children are able to attend federally funded Head Start programs.
Alabama has a deep gap between what the state spends on its pre-K education and what it spends to incarcerate prisoners, today's report says. Alabama spent $17.6 million for pre-K education in 2011, and it spent $605 million to house, feed and guard its criminals.
States, on average, spend nine times more on corrections than on pre-K education, according to the "Pay Now or Pay Much More Later" report. Alabama, in contrast, spends 34 times more on corrections than it does on pre-K education.
"It's common sense," said Falls. "Kids that otherwise don't have a lot of resources and don't have access to preschool education are often the ones who end up, down the line, faced with crime. ... Regardless of your political philosophy, it's important to spend money on education."
Today's report is part of an effort to preserve federal funding for preschool education at a time when lawmakers are struggling with the federal budget, Falls said.
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids seeks a boost in funding for early education programs like Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant by $910 million, compared with the fiscal 2012 budget.
Falls, along with Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper, Jefferson County Sheriff Mike Hale, Oneonta Police Chief James Chapman and six other Alabama lawmen, wrote to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby last month to ask for his support of this funding, as well as funding for after-school programming for older children.
Shelby, R-Ala., is the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.
The lawmen wrote that "these investments can save taxpayer money and are sound policy during a time when fiscal difficulties confront our country. ... As law enforcement leaders who have watched too many kids grow up to become criminals, we urge you to prioritize these investments shown by research to give kids the right start in life and help keep them on track while saving taxpayers money."
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids has more than 5,000 U.S. law enforcement leaders as members, including 61 in Alabama.