Nebraska law enforcement leaders say quality early learning can keep kids out of prison later

by | Jul 21, 2017

“High-quality early childhood programs provide kids with a strong start that prepares them for success in school and reduces the risk of future involvement in crime,” said Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, addressing members of the press and community at the County Courthouse in downtown Omaha today. Kleine was joined by Douglas County Sheriff Timothy Dunning to announce the release of a new report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids on the role early learning experiences play in promoting public safety and children’s social outcomes.

The report, Reducing Crime Begins with Early Learning, outlines why it’s essential for Nebraskans to pay attention to quality early care and learning experiences if the state is to come to grips with its increasingly serious problems with crime and prison overcrowding. According FCIK, Nebraska taxpayers pay approximately $200 million each year to incarcerate 5,000 adults in state prisons—far beyond the capacity of our state’s existing corrections facilities. The majority of inmates—7 in 10 nationally—never earned a high school diploma.

School dropout often leads to criminal behavior
But why is low educational attainment and school dropout so often associated with crime? Law enforcement officials and child development experts agree—children who show up at kindergarten lacking the cognitive and linguistic skills and competencies to succeed as students tend to show unhealthy social and emotional behaviors as well. It’s crucial that we improve early care and learning opportunities for children at risk—especially in the infant and toddler years when the foundations of brain circuitry are being laid.

Kleine and Dunning commended Nebraska on Sixpence, the statewide early learning fund that promotes healthy developmental experiences for infants and toddlers at risk statewide. “Sixpence is a successful example of how high-quality programs are enabling parents to better guide the cognitive, social and emotional growth of their youngest children,” said Kleine. Unfortunately, the problem in Nebraska is bigger than existing, high-quality parent coaching programs like those provided by Sixpence. Currently, these programs reach approximately 7 to 8% of children at risk under age 3.

Risk factors cross generations
Sheriff Dunning emphasized that 40 years of experience in law enforcement has made it clear to him that these risk factors often persist across multiple generations in a single family. “There are jail cells in this state that have held grandfathers, fathers and now sons,” said Dunning. “This is a cycle that we can—and need—to stop. But in order to break these cycles, we have to start as early as these destructive patterns do. That means investing in quality programs for our youngest kids, particularly those who are at risk.” Dunning also noted that quality early childhood programs focused on children ages 0-3 have been proven to reverse the trends that steer children into the criminal justice system.

Kleine and Dunning were joined by Amy Bornemeier, Sixpence Administrator, and Reyna Barrales, representing one of Omaha’s Sixpence parent engagement programs. Bornemeier noted that parent engagement/home visiting programs represent 70% of all Sixpence investments, and are known to be effective in helping parents become stronger caregivers and educators of their youngest children. Barrales described how Sixpence focuses on improving children’s outcomes across all developmental areas, and creates opportunities for families to engage in healthy socialization activities, connecting them better to community resources.

“If we keep kids in school,” said Kleine, “if we make them excited about education, if they learn while they’re very young…it makes a giant difference. Keeping them in school and making sure they get the education they need helps them become productive members of society.”

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is an anti-crime organization of more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and violence survivors nationwide, with 104 members in Nebraska.

Read Reducing Crime Begins with Early Learning report

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