“It Is Easier to Build Strong Children than to Repair Broken Men” – Frederick Douglass
The seeds of crime are sown long before the first dollar is stolen, drug is sold or life is taken. Risk factors such as poverty, peer rejection, antisocial peers, inadequate after-school care and poor academic performance – not mention abusive or neglectful parenting and psychological maladies – can set a child on a course to antisocial and/or criminal behavior. The combination of multiple risk factors working together further compounds the probability; the developmental cascade model helps illustrate just how the interaction of negative and often traumatic experiences carve out a trajectory to crime by strengthening, influencing or informing subsequent skills and deficits (Bartol & Bartol, 2017). Sadly, children across the country are wrestling with plural risk factors every day. A national sample of children recently found that nearly 40 percent of children in American had been direct victims of multiple violent acts (2020b), one in five students report being subjected to bullying (2020a) and 11.6 million children just two years ago were found to have been living in poverty (2021). That is a lot of children with a lot of risk factors. And that is the bad news.
The good news, however, is that protective factors can create a metaphorical U-turn in this pathway, providing positive intermediaries for the negative conditions. One such factor is early childhood education. Quality education has been proven to reduce the likelihood of future criminal behavior, with children in satisfactory schools exhibiting no more behavior issues at age eight than those with college-educated mothers (2018). The Perry Project is one such program, an educational intervention first established as a study examining the effects of high-quality preschool on at-risk children and their communities. Based on the HighScope strengths-based learning approach, the analysis concluded that by age 40, low-income children who attended competent preschool programs enjoyed greater financial earnings, had greater potential for employment, experienced less criminal involvement and were more likely to have completed high school (2004). Conversely, research on government-funded Child-Parent Centers in Chicago found children excluded from the program 70% more apt to be arrested on charges of violent crime by age 18 and five times more likely to experience chronic crime-involvement by adulthood (2018).
This buffering effect of early education on children with developmental risk factors is widely accepted, roughly nine out of ten police chiefs agreeing that expanding quality childcare programs would significantly reduce crime (2018). Additionally, Sanford Newman, president of anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, stated, “Law enforcement leaders know that to win the war on crime, we need to be as willing to guarantee our kids space in a pre-kindergarten program as we are to guarantee a criminal a prison cell” (2004). And as Joe Biden’s $775 billion child and elder care plan proposes universal preschool for three-and four-year-olds (2020d), things should be looking up for both children and the criminal justice system.
But there is a catch. A report by the Education Trust shows only one percent of Latino and four percent of Black children in 26 U.S. states are enrolled in “high quality” state-funded early learning programs (Ujifusa, 2019), blaming accessibility and affordability for the imbalance. The problem, it argues, is that states with better programming fail to reach their BIPOC children, and other states with higher percentages of children of color provide relatively lower-quality services. Meanwhile, nationwide statistics show that 30 states sustain a significant imbalance between enrollment of white children versus lower percentages of Latino children, and 18 states wherein white children are enrolled significantly higher than Black children (Hardy & Huber, 2020). The disparity is exacerbated by the fact that peer enrollment often has an impact on participation of other children (Hardy & Huber, 2020), so barriers to some can often mean barriers to many.
The question remains: why are adequate early learning resources less available to marginalized communities? Author Linda Darling-Hammond explains that it is a common fallacy that children of color and/or from disadvantage simply do not have the capacity to make good use of education (Darling-Hammond, 2001); from as long ago as the 1960s, Black children were viewed as socially, culturally and financially bereft, and, thus, in need of “fixing” (Allen, 2021). So affordable, accessible preschool for the BIPOC community has not gotten the funding nor attention it so desperately needs. And the very reason these resources remain sparse is the same reason why they are so needed; the Education Trust concluded in its report, “Systemic racism causes opportunity gaps for black and Latino children that begin early—even prenatally, which makes it crucial for these families to have access to high-quality [early childhood education] opportunities as a pathway to success into their K-12 education” (Ujifusa, 2019).
The need is becoming increasingly more urgent. As of last year, Black children were more than four times as likely to be held in juvenile facilities than their white counterparts (Rovner, 2021) and Latino youth 28 percent more likely (Bagley, 2021), even though adequate early education could help reduce this inequity and give children of color the possibility of success they have deserved all along. Naysayers argue that the cost of investment is simply too high, a familiar fallback excuse to continue inaction. But according to the Justice Policy Institute, incarcerating a single youth currently costs $588 per day, or $214,620 per year (2020c), whereas quality prekindergarten would virtually pay for itself by 2050 by yielding $8.90 in benefits for every dollar invested, $304.7 billion in benefits in total (Lynch & Vaghul, 2015). While these numbers may be overwhelming (to digest, not to mention decipher), the key point is this: quality, government-funded early childhood education would ultimately pay its taxpayers back in total, and the societal boon would manifest in reduction of crime, less incarceration and more citizens contributing to the welfare and economy of their communities.
The arguments are sound, the numbers add up, but racism rarely hears more than a dog whistle. It is up to those in the criminal justice field to implement these changes to give youth – and the adults they will become – a chance to thrive.
Allen, R., Shapland, D. L., Neitzel, J., & Iruka, I. U. (2021). Viewpoint. creating anti-racist early childhood spaces. NAEYC. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/summer2021/viewpoint-anti-racist-spaces
Bagley, N. (2021, July 23). Latinx disparities in youth incarceration. Youth Today. https://youthtoday.org/2021/07/latinx-disparities-in-youth-incarceration/
Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2017). Criminal behavior: A psychological approach (Eleventh). Pearson.
Bullying statistics. PACER Center – Champions for Children with Disabilities. (2020, November). https://www.pacer.org/bullying/info/stats.asp
Children exposed to violence. Office of Justice Programs. (2020, January 8). https://www.ojp.gov/program/programs/cev
Darling-Hammond, L. (2001). Inequality in teaching and schooling: How opportunity is rationed to students of color in america. In B.D. Smedley, A.Y. Stith, L. Colburn & C.H. Evans (Eds.), The right thing to do, the smart thing to do (pp. 208-366). National Academies Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK223633/ Doi: 10.17226/10186
Hardy, E., & Huber, R. (2020, January 15). Neighborhood preschool enrollment patterns by Race/ethnicity. diversitydatakids.org. https://www.diversitydatakids.org/research-library/data-visualization/neighborhood-preschool-enrollment-patterns-raceethnicity
Highscope Perry Preschool study. HighScope. (2004, November). https://highscope.org/highscope-perry-preschool-study/
The link between early childhood education and crime and violence reduction. Economic Opportunity Institute. (2018, October 17). https://www.opportunityinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/early-learning/ELCLinkCrimeReduction-Jul02.pdf
Lynch, R., & Vaghul, K. (2015, December 2). The benefits and costs of investing in early childhood education. Equitable Growth. https://equitablegrowth.org/research-paper/the-benefits-and-costs-of-investing-in-early-childhood-education/?longform=true
New Child Poverty data illustrate the powerful impact of America’s safety net programs. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2021, September 20). https://www.aecf.org/blog/new-child-poverty-data-illustrates-the-powerful-impact-of-americas-safety-net-programs
Rovner, J. (2021, July 15). Black disparities in youth incarceration. The Sentencing Project. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/black-disparities-youth-incarceration/
Sticker shock 2020: The cost of youth incarceration. Justice Policy Institute. (2020, July 30). https://justicepolicy.org/research/policy-brief-2020-sticker-shock-the-cost-of-youth-incarceration/
Ujifusa, A. (2019, November 6). Kids of color often shut out of high-quality state preschool, research says. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/kids-of-color-often-shut-out-of-high-quality-state-preschool-research-says/2019/11
USAFacts. (2020, October 16). Pre-primary enrollment statistics among three- and four-year olds. USAFacts. https://usafacts.org/articles/how-many-children-attend-preschool-us/