At a recent budget hearing, a senator asked, "If you were to advise us as to an investment that we should be making in another agency, in another part of government, that would impact what you do, change the outcome of what you do, what would you recommend?"

My answer was easy: early childhood education programs.

As I see it, every time we talk about corrections reform, it really must begin with the realization that improving the chances for children, especially those in our most disadvantaged communities, is not just a great investment financially, but our responsibility and the true answer to improving criminal justice in America.

A nonprofit, bipartisan, national anti-crime organization, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, recently released a new report documenting how Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed $120 million state funding increase for high-quality pre-kindergarten programs could boost high school graduation rates and, ultimately, reduce the number of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania. Further, the report says that investing in Pre-K now could save taxpayers more than $350 million.

The report makes the case that by the time at-risk children get to kindergarten, many are already behind in vocabulary development, as well as in pre-literacy and pre-math skills. They can also have problems with behavior and impulse control, which makes it hard to get along with other kids and teachers.

The report also cites state and national research studies showing that quality early learning programs have been proven to reduce these disadvantages and, in many cases, eliminate the need for other costly interventions.

As Fredrick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

We already know what the numbers say. High school dropouts, those from low socio-economic, high-poverty neighborhoods, and especially children of color, have a 70 percent lifetime likelihood of being locked up.

Gov. Wolf's budget proposal would increase funding by $100 million (to $197.2 million) for the state's Pre-K Counts program to serve about 11,600 additional children in families with incomes below 300 percent of the poverty level.

It would also add $20 million (to $59.1 million) to support the Head Start State Supplemental program to serve an additional 2,400 children in poverty. Both of these critical programs have shown significant success in improving student outcomes.

The administration has already received requests for nearly 25,000 new Pre-K slots, which shows the desire and need for important additional funding.

Who populates our prisons? People without jobs, people without a high school diploma, people who believed their only avenue was criminal activity.

What could change the outcome of what we do? Setting kids up for excellence by helping them stay in school and go on to higher education.

When we spend money on children on the front end, keeping them out of jail and on the right path, we make the investment of a lifetime and we can save millions down the road.

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