Oklahoma County sheriff: Early childhood education helps to fight crime – NewsOK.com

I began my law enforcement career in 1967. I served 24 years with the Choctaw Police Department before being elected sheriff 19 years ago. I’ve dedicated my life to making Oklahoma County a safe place to live. Now I find myself continuing these efforts through a different approach — advocating for high-quality early learning opportunities for our children.

My reasoning is simple: 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years, impacting cognitive and emotional skills and making children far more likely to start school ready to learn so they don’t fall behind, drop out and get involved in crime. If we invest in children early, the effects are lifelong, lowering dropout rates and involvement in crime. Putting resources in early childhood programs keeps communities safe, helping to lower crime and incarceration rates.

Law enforcement leaders suggest early learning stems crime. A Chicago-based study, highlighted by the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids group, found that children who participated in high-quality preschool were 20 percent less likely to be arrested for a felony or incarcerated as young adults. Another study found that participants who attended preschool were nearly half as likely to serve jail time by age 40. Lack of education is part of the crime problem. Seven of 10 state prison inmates didn’t graduate from high school.

We can be proud that Oklahoma was one of the first states to provide free preschool programs for 4-year-olds and 99 percent of school districts have available programs. Our state’s pre-K program has comprehensive learning standards, specialized teacher training and excellent staff-to-child ratios. We have done well investing in our children.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough funding for other states to replicate our success. While the Head Start program gets increased funding, other critical early education programs, preschool development grants and child care development and block grants, have been neglected with little or no funding to create, develop and build pre-K programs and ensure child care environments are safe and healthy, while encouraging development.

A stool cannot stand with only two legs. We need a complete, wraparound approach to early education encompassing Head Start, child care and pre-K investment to put our children on track early. While Oklahoma has an exemplary early education program, other states are still in the early stages of development. All states need this investment to ensure children are educated with development and socialization opportunities so that they don’t stray from a successful path later in life. We cannot afford to lose programs that work in tandem to positively impact children in their earliest years.

There will never be a silver bullet to guarantee youth will not become criminals. Early childhood investment, however, is our best bet. We must have the opportunity and funding to be innovative and expansive with early education, childcare and related programs. Investing in the education of our children is the most effective strategy in fighting crime on our streets.

Whetsel is Oklahoma County sheriff and a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to investment in early childhood education.