I say this as a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an organization of nearly 5,000 law enforcement leaders. We have published several reports that show how quality early learning puts kids on track for long-term academic achievement. When that happens, they’re less apt to fall behind and more apt to graduate and stay out of the criminal justice system.

One report — “Pay now or pay much more later” — compared long-term outcomes for 100,000 kids who went to the Chicago Child Parent Centers with those who didn’t. Participants were 29 percent more likely to graduate from high school. Those left out were 70 percent more likely to have been arrested for a violent crime by the age of 18.

A study of another large program, the Perry Preschool in Michigan, found participants were 44 percent more likely to graduate from high school, and that by age 27 those who didn’t attend were five times more likely to have been criminal offenders.

Closer to home, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood spoke out in strong support for early learning at Gov. Bryant’s recent Public Safety Summit, citing benefits that included reductions in the need for remedial education, higher lifetime earnings and lower welfare costs.

Meanwhile, our Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force reported that our state’s prison population has grown 17 percent in the last decade.

With this in mind, we need a two-tiered approach for reducing the number of people in our jails. The recent passage of House Bill 585 will deal with adults by lowering the number of people locked up for nonviolent offenses. But I also urge lawmakers to take three key steps for improved early learning so fewer people grow up to become involved in crime.

First: We need resources to support collaboration between existing preschool providers like Head Start, childcare centers and public schools to make quality early learning available to more kids.

We should also support the Early Learning Collaborative Fund, which encourages centers to offer programs that are high quality … and sets up a way for parents to learn about the qualifications of teachers, the classroom environment and the level of parent-teacher interaction, among other factors.

Second: We need more support for the Mississippi Building Blocks program, which improves teaching and learning in licensed childcare centers. The program also boosts parental engagement and helps the centers use resources more efficiently.

Third: We need to boost our support for “Excel by 5,” a program that works in 29 Mississippi communities. It succeeds by leveraging the power of businesses, churches, civic organizations and schools to engage children in the early years so they’re truly prepared for kindergarten.

That need is particularly dire when you consider that 39 percent of Mississippi kids aged five and under are living in poverty, according to Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That data ranks Mississippi 48th in the nation in terms of the number of children attending preschool, those graduating from high school on time, and other education indicators.

I also believe it’s much smarter to invest in early learning now to avoid much higher costs down the road. A well-respected cost-benefit analysis of 49 different studies of programs showed that early learning can return, on average, a net economic benefit to society of more than $22,000 for every child served.

On the other hand, a child who drops out of school, uses drugs and becomes a career criminal costs society, on average, $2.5 million over his or her lifetime — further proof that supporting early learning will pay dividends for decades to kids and communities alike.

John Miller is director of the Biloxi Police Department, located in the Lopez-Quave Public Safety Center, 170 Porter Ave., Biloxi, MS 39530.

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