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Originally published December 29, 2014 at 5:06 PM | Page modified December 29, 2014 at 5:14 PM

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Editorial: To save money, provide quality pre-K, not incarceration

Washington would save money and help more children be successful if it invested more in early learning instead of paying higher costs to jail some of them later.

Seattle Times Editorial

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JUST 11 states spend less incarcerating a child for a full year than Washington state. But the state could instead save money and rescue troubled lives if it invested more in early childhood services.

A recent report from the Justice Policy Institute found that each Washington minor jailed for an entire year costs taxpayers $95,805. The states that spend less are more rural, or don’t have Washington’s high-tech economy.

Still, compare Washington’s outlay to the $12,332 annual cost of full-time child care in the state, according to Child Care Aware, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Or put that up against the $27,112 the University of Washington says a traditional freshman pays for 2014-15 tuition and expenses.

Contrasted with those figures, Washington’s shortsighted policies of not investing more in early learning is likely leading to more children having brushes with the law, including stays in juvenile detention.

Further, paying a premium at the back end ignores expert arguments that incarceration is the least effective youth intervention. Earlier this month, the White House Council of Economic Advisers laid out the economic case for early learning investments. Among them:

“By improving cognitive and socio-emotional development, investments in early childhood education may reduce involvement with the criminal justice system,” said the council’s report, “The Economics of Early Childhood Investments.” “Lower crime translates into benefits to society in the form of lowered costs of the criminal justice system and incarceration, as well as reductions in victimization costs.”

Some progress in Washington has been made. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire created the cabinet-level Department of Early Learning in 2006. This year, Seattle voters embraced a ballot measure advanced by Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council to begin a four-year pilot program of subsidized high-quality preschool.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, who attended a White House summit on early education earlier this month, says he plans to complement those earlier efforts in 2015.

More investments in early education should help curtail future need for new youth detention centers, like the $210 million facility that county voters approved with a ballot measure two years ago.

Under scrutiny from anti-youth incarceration activists earlier this year, proponents of the center argued that a new facility will save about $1 million annually in operational costs, reducing the $100 million the county already allocates for prevention services.

When voters reprioritize their dollars toward child nutrition, early education and coaching parents on good child rearing, the need to build, replace or repair youth detention facilities should lessen.

In that way, targeting tax funds for early childhood investment is not just a moral imperative, it’s a fiscal one as well.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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