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Originally published Friday, October 14, 2011 at 3:51 PM

Guest columnist

Invest in youngest citizens to reduce burgeoning crime costs

Research shows investment in young children, especially those at risk, can reduce society's criminal-justice costs down the road. Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and King County Sheriff Sue Rahr urge the federal deficit-reduction committee not to cut funding for early education and quality care.

Special to The Seattle Times

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HERE'S a suggestion for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction: Consider what our nation spends on crime and corrections.

As law-enforcement leaders, we know that corrections spending is necessary but incredibly expensive. Take a look at the numbers: Locking up Washington's inmate population of more than 18,000 criminal offenders cost our state more than $850 million last year. According to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Census Bureau, Washington's corrections spending tripled from 1982 to 2008.

The high cost of corrections, policing and judicial spending illustrates why we need to continue to support programs that can reduce crime and dramatically lower corrections costs.

One example: Providing better opportunities for our youngest children, from birth to age 5, can make a huge difference in helping those most at risk get on the right track. Research shows that high-quality early childhood programs can also significantly reduce crime and violence in communities and save money.

Our nation faces a fiscal crisis that imperils our prosperity. Painful trade-offs are multiplying, and they're no longer on the horizon. They are here. Looking at evidence-based policy and finding true cost savings is imperative. Research shows that every dollar spent on early care and education can generate returns of up to $10 in savings from reduced crime, corrections and other costs. If private-sector investors could generate returns like that, people would line up around the block to invest.

New evidence published in the June edition of the research journal Science builds the case that intervening with high-quality early education can reduce crime and save taxpayers millions of dollars. Researchers tracked the progress of more than 1,400 low-income children in Chicago and found that those who did not attend the Child-Parent Center preschools were 27 percent more likely to have a felony arrest by age 26 and were 39 percent more likely to spend time in jail.

In addition to these long-term impacts, early learning investments save money in the short run by preventing special-education placements and repeated grades that stretch our education budget. The Child-Parent Centers saved society more than $80,000 per child, over half of which came from reduced criminal-justice costs.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, less than 30 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty were served by Head Start in 2009. The Early Head Start program for babies and toddlers served only 2 percent of eligible children. Fewer than one in six eligible children from low-income families receive support for child care through the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

Failing to prioritize these investments will increase the number of children who do not have access to these opportunities, increasing the risk of crime and causing greater fiscal pressures. That's why our commitment to the next generation must include effective ways to reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars well into the future. Ultimately, we will rely far less on locking people up.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is currently grappling with reducing our nation's debt as co-chair of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. We urge her and other committee members to refrain from further cutting discretionary spending so we can protect funding for high-quality early care and education. They should look to other spending and revenue approaches to achieve their deficit-cutting goal.

The joint committee and Congress must be scrupulous in ensuring that their decisions don't jeopardize what really works to get at-risk kids on the right track in order to reduce the far greater costs of crime.

There's no replacement for tough policing, appropriate penalties and emergency response for keeping communities safe. But after-the-fact criminal-justice response is not the highest impact and most cost-effective crime-prevention tool.

We would much rather invest in educating kids than pay much more for additional prisons. Congress should continue to make early childhood development a priority so today's most at-risk children don't become tomorrow's most wanted adults.

John Diaz, left, is chief of the Seattle Police Department. Sue Rahr is King County sheriff.

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