Maybe when Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis is finished calculating the cost of a bare-bones plan to expand the county jail, he can become an advocate for early childhood education.
More sheriffs on jumping on this bandwagon. For example, former Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel penned an op-ed in 2015 urging other sheriffs to become members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to investment in early childhood education.
"My reasoning is simple: 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years, impacting cognitive and emotional skills and making children far more likely to start school ready to learn so they don't fall behind, drop out and get involved in crime," he wrote. "If we invest in children early, the effects are lifelong, lowering dropout rates and involvement in crime. Putting resources in early childhood programs keeps communities safe, helping to lower crime and incarceration rates."
Long-term studies back up what law enforcement knows. Early learning can make a difference in reducing future crime and correction costs.
Look at the results from Chicago's Child-Parent Center, which has served more than 100,000 3- and 4-year-olds since 1967. This study found that, by age 18, children who did not participate in the programs were 70 percent more likely to have been arrested for a violent crime. By age 24, individuals served by the program were 20 percent less likely to have served time in jail or prison.
The radio program "This American Life" showcased the Perry Preschool Project, a study that also began in the 1960s.
"They took a bunch of poor kids from Ypsilanti, Michigan, put half of them into a preschool program and then the other half just led their normal lives. And then after a year of that, both of those groups went back into the same public school system.
"And then every so often, researchers would follow up with these kids to see how they were doing from the two groups. They're following them still even now, and the results have been amazing. At age 27, the kids who got preschool were half as likely to have gotten arrested. They earned an average of 50% more per month. They were 50% more likely to have a savings account, 20% more likely to have a car. Preschool kids got sick less often, were unemployed less often, sentenced to incarceration less often."
One way or another, we pay for at-risk kids. Either we pay early by providing them with learning programs that give them a solid chance to succeed or we pay a lot more for our failure to prepare them for life as productive citizens.
Mesa County's paradigm is more the latter than the former. Commissioners are hoping the sheriff can hold down costs on a needed jail expansion to $10 million or so. Imagine if that $10 million had been spent upstream 25 years ago. Maybe we wouldn't be looking at a costly jail expansion today.
That's not to say our current commissioners are to blame. They stepped into a situation not of their own making. And asking whether county government — rather than the state — should bear the expense of free, universal preschool education is a fair question.
For now, the county has no choice but to consider sinking millions into a jail expansion, or risk a lawsuit that would force them to do it anyway. But that should serve as a wake-up call that we're spending mightily on the back end of a problem that could be minimized with some front-end investment in early childhood education.
That's why we would like commissioners to consider a formal policy that for every dollar they spend on the jail expansion, they will set aside a dime to help provide high-quality early childhood education to every child in Mesa County.
Besides sparing future county commissioners from headaches related to jail crowding, they could enhance the lives of countless Mesa County children.