DelCo Times: Pa. prisons boss: Early childhood education decreases crime
May 26, 2017 by Kathleen E. Carey

CHESTER >> Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel stood before the State Correctional Institute at Chester Friday to stress the importance of investing in quality early childhood education to decrease incarceration and increase the number of productive citizens in society.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” he said, quoting Frederick Douglass, before addressing statistics provided in a report entitled “Pre-K Key to Cutting Pennsylvania Prison Costs and Boosting School Success.”

The report, issued by the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, surveyed almost 600 inmates into the Pennsylvania prison system in April. It showed a clear link between lack of education and parental support and propensity towards crime.

Darby Township Police Chief Regina Price was among the law enforcement and elected officials at the event.

“I know from years of experience that we can’t simply arrest, prosecute and incarcerate our way out of … problems,” she said. “We have to implement strategies to keep people from turning to crime in the first place. Education needs to be a focal point of that strategy.”

She quoted the report in citing 40 percent of state prison inmates have not graduated from high school. On the national level, it’s 70 percent, she added.

“We need our youth to be educated not incarcerated and that process starts early,” Price said.

Delaware County Sheriff Mary Fall Hopper added that many children from low-income families are behind pre-literacy and math skills by the time they enter kindergarten.

“We know from research and from our experience that a key indicator whether or not a person will engage in criminal activity is whether they have completed high school,” she said.

Hopper said 113,000 children in Pennsylvania are eligible for Pre-K Counts and Head Start programs but don’t have access to those because of limits in funding.

Delaware County Deputy District Attorney Michael Galantino provided the cost figures.

“We’ve all heard the saying, ‘Crime doesn’t pay’ but like it or not, we all do pay for crime,” he said. “Pennsylvania’s still spending nearly $3.2 billion annually by incarcerating adults. That’s why we have to take every step we can to reduce crime. High quality early education programs make a difference in setting at risk kids in a positive direction from the start.”

Galantino cited a cost benefit analysis that determined investment in these early childhood programs would net a profit of more than $29,000 for every child served.

“Applying this figure to the 8,400 additional children that would be served under Gov. (Tom) Wolf’s Pre-K proposal means our state could reap a return of nearly $250 million over the lifetime of these at-risk children,” he said. “We’ve got a choice today and it boils down to dollars and common sense. If we invest in our kids today, we’ll be better able to maintain balanced budgets instead of devoting billions to pay for crime and corrections in the years to come.”

However, state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-161 of Swarthmore, presented an issue.

“I’m concerned,” she said. “Gov. Wolf proposed a budget that has a $75 million increase for preschool. Almost 9,000 new kids would have access and they don’t have it now … Unfortunately, the House Republicans slashed the governor’s budget by $50 million and zeroed out the home visiting program.”

State Rep. Jamie Santora, R-163 of Upper Darby, said the package approved by House Republicans still includes a $25 million increase and that there were concerns that spots weren’t being filled in the early childhood education programs due to space.

Carol Austin, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney appointee to a board overseeing Pre-K education, said there was no issue with spots being filled, that the program was full of participants.

The budget is now in the hands of the state Senate.

Wetzel said they need to draw upon their fortitude.

“When you talk about preventing crime, let’s prevent the crime of having someone’s parental situation and their zip code dictate their future opportunities – because that’s the reality today,” he said. “When 115,000 kids are eligible for these programs but can’t get them because we don’t have the courage to fund them, that’s a crime in and of itself.

“And the reality is we have a responsibility to these kids,” he said.

Wetzel said the report showed that inmates’ educational attainment and their interaction with their parents dictates their future.

“That’s not right,” he said, “and that’s not anything any of us should be proud … The reality is we have the opportunity to invest in kids early on and get them at level by grade 3 so they can graduate and not only not be incarcerated but (also) go to college and just be the best they can be.”

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