GUEST - Invest in kids and education to reduce crime

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WALLA WALLA - At the end of this month I will retire from my career in law enforcement after four decades, including more than 28 years as chief of police. When I first started off, maybe some part of me wanted to "fix" everything by the time I retired.

Today, I recognize that - just as I understood 28 years ago when I accepted the responsibility for our city's safety from Chief Bert Watts - the job of public safety is never done; it passes to others.

I now leave that responsibility to my successor, Scott Bieber, who has been a commander with the Vancouver, Wash., Police Department.

I want to leave behind a legacy of doing my best to help people and make Walla Walla a safe place to work, visit and raise a family.

What's one key ingredient for safer, healthier and stronger communities in the future? I believe it has to start with looking out for the youngest generation and making sure they succeed in school and pursue continuous learning and a career.

Preventing kids from getting involved in crime in the first place is the smartest, most cost-effective approach to crime prevention we can take.

Research shows high school dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than graduates.

Criminologists Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti found that even one additional year of schooling can result in significant reductions in serious crimes such as burglary, larceny, arson, motor vehicle theft, assault and even murder.

Many children get on the path to school failure and involvement in crime before they ever enter kindergarten. Investing in children in their earliest years is extremely important.

Reaching at-risk children with help during their earliest years can make all the difference for setting them on a path for success that ends with graduation.

For instance, the HighScope Perry Preschool study found that at-risk children left out of the high-quality preschool were five times more likely by age 27 to be chronic offenders than children who attended.

Because of their increased involvement in crime, the children who did not attend were 86 percent more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison by the age of 40.

The cost of incarceration far exceeds the cost of prevention.

A year of state lock-up in the Washington State Penitentiary costs taxpayers nearly $25,000 a year.

A year of quality preschool in our state's Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program is less than $7,000 per year. The Perry Preschool intervention cut crime, welfare and other costs so much that it saved taxpayers an average of $180,000 for every child who participated, with most of the savings coming from reduced criminal justice costs.

Law enforcement and prosecutors need tools to hold criminal offenders responsible for their actions.

However, we must match our commitment to locking up criminals with an equally strong commitment to ensuring that at-risk children have a better chance at success.

There are too many young people who are gravitating toward drug abuse, criminal activity and cyclical negative behaviors that don't lead to a successful future. Far too many are dropping out of school altogether and getting involved in crime.

We need to invest resources in long-term criminal prevention, in addition to short-term crime prevention.

In our county, I especially like the approach of the Walla Walla Valley Early Learning Coalition, which gives us a strong vision of a community in which all children arrive at school ready for success.

This group of community leaders are advocating for resources to provide more children with access to high-quality early learning opportunities for all young children in the Walla Walla Valley.

They may not think of themselves as a crime prevention group, but they are in fact helping us build safer communities.

I hope that state legislators representing Southeastern Washington will remember the vital importance of kids and make sure that we continue to support early learning and other services for young children.

As I look to the future and the time I will spend with my four grandchildren, I firmly believe that the best investment that the city and county of Walla Walla and Washington state can make is devoting our time, resources and energy toward helping kids succeed.

There are many community members deeply invested in making Walla Walla such a great place to live, whether you're near retirement age or just starting out in life.

It's been a privilege serving as your police chief, and I thank you for the opportunity.

Chuck Fulton has been Walla Walla's police chief since 1983 and an officer with the WWPD since 1969.

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