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Early childhood education: How it impacts crime

By Joel Smith //

During nearly 15 years as a prosecutor, I have had the opportunity to handle hundreds of cases involving those who have violated the law in Mississippi. Seeing a multitude of cases day after day, year after year, has made me passionate about the issues we face in the fight for victims of crime in our community. Obtaining justice for those who have been victimized by the selfish and brutal acts of another is a unique battle and one that can be professionally rewarding. On the other hand, witnessing the plight and difficulties endured by a victim is heartbreaking and frustrating. Public service in the criminal justice system has taught me many life lessons. I have observed the best and worst of our society.

A major focus in the District Attorney’s office is recidivism–the number of repeat offenders that churn through the criminal justice system. Our office sends more criminals to prison with habitual offender enhancement sentences than any other jurisdiction in Mississippi. This is a vicious cycle and one where there are no winners. After dealing with this issue for quite some time, it has become clear that one of the key components to reducing recidivism will come from outside the justice system altogether.

The education of our children, specifically early childhood education, has a profound impact on the likelihood of whether they will fall into a repetitive life of crime. Studies have shown that children who attend preschool at age four are more likely to graduate from high school, become homeowners, and qualify for military service. Most importantly, children who attend preschool reduce the likelihood that they will not participate in a violent crime by 70%. Nationwide research shows for every $1 in public funds spent on quality early childhood education, $7 is returned to the public in the reduction of services required to remedy crime, poverty, unemployment, and medical costs. In Mississippi, the return is as high as $12.

Obviously, we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of the crime problem facing our country. While tough enforcement and prosecution are vital to a safe community, it cannot be the only answer. We have to search for solutions that keep people from turning to a life of crime in the first place. This will require a multi-faceted approach to yield long-term results. Early childhood education can and should play a major role in our strategy. By expanding the availability of quality Pre-K education, we can help the children of Mississippi reach higher graduation rates. In turn, this will lead to less crime and lower costs to taxpayers. I am not naïve enough to believe that any one approach is going to completely eliminate crime. However, the implementation of a comprehensive plan to provide quality early childhood education to all children can create a safer future for all Mississippians.

Smith is district attorney for Harrison, Hancock and Stone County. Reach him at