Morning Call: Your View by retired Allentown police chief: ‘Spend more on potential, less on penitentiaries’ 
June 22, 2019 by Roger MacLean

If you happen to be looking for high school dropouts, check out Pennsylvania’s state prisons. Four of the 10 inmates sent there in 2018 did not have high school diplomas, according to Michele Hiester, the chief of research and evaluation for the state Department of Corrections.

And if you want to know about young people entangled in the criminal justice system, you’ll find that 13 out of every 100 arrests in Pennsylvania involves someone aged 17 to 24.

Those who commit property and violent crimes leave behind a trail of victims whose sense of personal security has been shattered forever.

Pennsylvania’s law enforcement professionals are tough on criminals because it is their job and their mission, but we know that safer communities start with diverting youth from lives of crime in the first place. We can fight crime by assuring that each Pennsylvania child earns a high school diploma and grows up to lead a productive, law-abiding life.

This path demands a continuum of public investment in childhood, building a foundation of success from birth through graduation. As Pennsylvania’s policymakers set priorities for next year’s state budget, they should seek to:

∗ Strengthen families through voluntary home visiting programs. In 2017 there were 4,836 substantiated reports of child abuse in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Children who are victims of abuse are more likely to become involved in crime later, most experts agree.

Home visiting is a proven and powerful prevention tool. Trained home visitors coach parents in healthy child development and how to manage the stress that often triggers abuse. Research shows that children are healthier and families are more self-sufficient.

∗ Grow access to early education. From birth to age 5, the brain builds 1 million neural connections a second. These connections are meant to encourage learning, impulse control and physical health, but first, they must be “hard-wired” in place. That is the role of high-quality pre-K and child care, especially when it helps at-risk children overcome the long-term consequences of hardship and trauma at home.

Children from quality early learning do better in school, are likelier to graduate, and are less likely to engage in criminal activity. Our investments earn a “profit” of $27,000 per child in lower costs for special education and criminal justice, and higher earnings when participants enter the workforce, according to a 2018 study from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

∗ Adequate and equitable K-12 education funding. High school dropouts are more likely to end up in prison. The seeds of dropping out are planted in early school years, when students fall so far behind academically that they never catch up. Many attend severely financially distressed schools, where classroom amenities are skimpy and career-exploration opportunities are scarce.

Well-designed investments targeted to students most at risk are proven to close achievement gaps and elevate worker wages. Improving our male high school graduation rate by only 5% percent would generate $288 million in savings and increased tax revenue, according the Alliance for Excellent Education’s 2013 report “Saving Futures, Saving Dollars: The Impact of Education on Crime Reduction and Earnings.”

Pennsylvania spends about $43,000 per inmate, according to the Vera Institute’s 2017 report, “The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends 2010-2015″ — three times more than we spend on public school students and five times the spending on pre-K students.

It’s time to spend more on potential, and less on penitentiaries. Our children will be better educated and our communities will be safer.

Roger J. MacLean is president of the Allentown City Council and a retired Allentown police chief.

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