Funding preschool can cut prison costs

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Even amid the gridlock in the “other” Washington, lawmakers have come together to make gains for our children. It was great to read that a bipartisan group of House members joined Sen, Patty Murray in introducing the Strong Start for America’s Children Act.

As the article said, as many as 50,000 children in Washington could potentially qualify for taxpayer-paid preschool at an average cost of nearly $7,000 per child. That may seem like a steep price. However, consider that in Washington we spend nearly $854 million to incarcerate 17,000 offenders in our state prison system.

That money, if invested in a child’s earliest years, can have strong payoffs for future crime prevention.

In September, I participated in the release of a new report, “I’m the Guy You Pay Later,” that lays out in very clear terms the proven benefits of investing in high-quality early learning. We know from research and from our experience that the journey that brings many individuals into the criminal justice system didn’t happen overnight.

The path to school failure is often charted in a child’s earliest years. “I’m the Guy You Pay Later” describes the particular challenges faced by kids who are born into low-income families.

By the time these youngsters get to kindergarten, many are already behind in vocabulary development and pre-literacy and pre-math skills. They can also have problems with behavior and impulse control — which makes it hard to get along with other kids and teachers.

Quality preschool and early childhood programs have been proven to reduce these disadvantages. As a nation we can keep doing what we’re doing and see our prison costs continue to consume billions of dollars a year. Or, we can implement policies and make investments needed to get more kids on the path to success in school and life.

I urge our state’s congressional delegation to join its colleagues in support of the Strong Start of America’s Children Act.

Chief Scott Bieber

Walla Walla Police Department

Comments

PearlY 11 months ago

I fear that the Chief's heart has silenced his calculator.

How realistic is it that investing an extra $350 million a year in one year of pre-school education for 50,000 children will be recouped in lower spending on prisoners? Running the numbers, not at all.

Dept. of Corrections stats tell us the average age of incarcerated offenders is 37.5 years; average length of stay is 24 months. 93% are male.

How many children would we expect to become prisoners eventually?

Well, 93% of 17,000 means we have 15,810 male prisoners. Less than 2% are under 20 and less than 5% are over 60. Let's leave them out, to bend over backward to be liberal in this analysis. About 11% are serving sentences for crimes committed outside Washington; if that arrangement continues, what we do with children here could have no effect on future populations of imported out-of-state offenders. So we're left with about 13,140 male Washington prisoners between ages 20-60.

There are about 1.9 million men in Washington between 20 and 60 years of age. So that means one out of every 145 men in that age range is incarcerated.

This program will serve 50,000 children a year, but only about 25,000 males. All other things being equal, we would expect 172 of them would go on to be prisoners. (25,000 divided by 145.)

But this program is directed at the low income, and a greater proportion of offenders are low income. So let's again be liberal here and quadruple the expected prisoners from each year's male pre-school population, making it 688.

To arrive at the expected female prisoners from each year's female pre-school population, I've taken a short-cut that ignores minor demographic differences, and used this formula: 688 divided by 93 X 7 = 52 female prisoners.

So do we expect then a total of 740 prisoners out of a year's pre-school population? No, we expect half that, since the average length of incarceration is 2 years, or 370 prisoners.

If this program were 100% successful in preventing the children who go through it from becoming prisoners, we'd be spending nearly one million dollars per expected diverted prisoner NOT including 33 years of interest on that money. (Spending at age 4 to avoid incarceration at age 37.)

But the average prisoner costs us $50,000 a year for two years, or $100,000. (Granted there might be inflation of that figure, but maybe not, since newer prisons are much, much cheaper per prisoner.)

Even assuming 100% success, which is doubtful, the costs of this program far outweigh this particular benefit - so much so that it is not fair to even call it a benefit.

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NewInWW 11 months ago

You estimate that only 1.48% of low income kids end up in prison is the linchpin of your entire argument. Do you have any support for that figure? I expect that Chief Bieber would disagree with your estimate.

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downhillracer 11 months ago

Asking the regular crowd of selfish gadflys and know-nothing naysayers to offer credible evidence for any of their sad arguments? You've got a long wait ahead of you..

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PearlY 11 months ago

I didn't estimate that only 1.48% end up in prison, only that 1.48% are in there at any one time for an average two-year stretch. Quite a different thing. Over a 40-year period (ages 20 through 60) that could mean as many as nearly 30% of low-income kids ending up in prison. Looked at that way, my estimate seems way too high.

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NewInWW 11 months ago

I see your point; I'd still like Chief Bieber or someone else with the actual numbers to weigh in.

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PearlY 11 months ago

I honestly would too. I'd like to see policy makers base their advocacy on real analysis, and not just rosy optimism. And prison cost savings is by no means the only possible benefit from effective early-childhood interventions - key word being "effective." But before spending $350 million (just in our state, not to mention the rest of the country), and knowing how worthless programs, once adopted, will accrue their powerful lobbies, grow exponentially and live forever, rosy optimism needs to be challenged forcefully.

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namvet60 11 months ago

Great post PearlY. Also if the prison systems reverted back to the adage of your in prison for a reason - "conviction of a crime" - putting prisoners in a cell with a mattress and a cot with 3 bologna sandwichs a day would also cut the cost. I think that Sheriff Arpaio has the right idea and saves a lot of money to be utilized in other areas of the state.

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shiftboss1 11 months ago

I understand the need for early childhood education and believe that it can help children but.....if those same children go home to parents that don't care and won't invest their time in their own children then what happens? Low income does not equal "behind in vocabulary development and pre-literacy and pre-math skills. They can also have problems with behavior and impulse control — which makes it hard to get along with other kids and teachers". Kids need parents that are willing to parent, willing to teach, and willing to give up some of their own wants for the benefit of the child they are raising. Yes, I would rather money go to the children than to the already incarcerated adults but if the state is willing to spend that kind of money then there needs be be some accountability for the parents of the children.

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