Collectively, we have worked in law enforcement for more than 80 years. One of the most difficult responsibilities we have had — any law enforcement officer ever has — is to lead investigations of violent crimes that involve children.
It has been our responsibility to meet with parents and tell them that their teenager or child was the victim of a violent crime. As law enforcement officers and as parents, we can tell you there is nothing more heartbreaking than to see a child hurt — and in extreme cases killed — by a senseless act of violence. As a nation, we are grappling with this again as we watch our law enforcement brethren, families and the community of Newtown, Conn., try to sort out the devastation of 26 murders.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have also had the responsibility to inform a parent that their teen was the suspect in a violent crime.
Each case is a tragedy.
We know how to help protect at-risk youth. We don’t want them to be victimized by violence — and we don’t want to see them carry out acts of violence in our communities.
We know that the education of our children is their ticket to a better life. From a law enforcement perspective, it is also critical for our future public safety.
When we consider the fact that Maine spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to house, feed and provide supervision for our incarcerated criminals, it is clear that we need to find a way to get our corrections costs under control. There is no substitute for tough law enforcement, but we must do more to establish and improve programs that prevent at-risk kids from engaging in criminal activity.
One way or another, we pay for at-risk kids. Either we pay on the front end by providing them a solid chance to succeed, or we pay a lot more for later failure. Providing more at-risk kids with quality early learning opportunities will help us prevent crime and reduce costly prison and jail costs for years to come.
The need to get this right is great. Picture this: there are approximately 82,000 children under age 6 in Maine. More than 70 percent of these children live in households with all parents working. These young children spend time in some type of non-parent child care each week.
We know how important the early years are. That is why it is vital to make sure that early care and education is high quality. Kids need adequately trained and compensated professionals to take care of them and guide them in the classroom. They need curriculum that is appropriate for their age. They need access to screenings for early learning disabilities or developmental issues.
If we get quality right, there is a huge return on investment. For instance, long-term studies of the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan show that it reduced crime, welfare and other costs so much that it saved society an average of $180,000 for every child served, with the vast majority of the public savings coming from reduced crime costs alone. High-quality early learning is a proven way to save scarce taxpayer dollars — something we cannot afford to overlook with today’s tight budgets.
The need for high-quality early learning opportunities nationwide and in Maine is great. Less than 28 percent of Maine’s youngsters in poverty were served by Head Start in 2010.
When it comes to making sure Maine’s kids get a great start, we cannot and should not skimp on early care and education. Quality is absolutely the key factor for getting the best results. We know, and research has proven, that if we give early care and education the proper support, we will have fewer dropouts, less crime and safer communities, and the investment will pay off many times over.
As policymakers launch new sessions, both in Washington and Augusta, we urge each and every one of them to make increasing the quality of and access to federal and state early care and education a high priority.
Michael Bussiere is Lewiston's chief of police; Philip Crowell Jr. is Auburn's chief of police; and Guy Desjardins is Androscoggin County sheriff.