By Margaret Stock

Mass incarceration has been a major topic of media attention recently. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population yet houses approximately 25% of the world’s prisoners. Our prison population rate is about 3.5 times that of Europe and 2.5 times that of Canada. Alaska has an even higher incarceration rate than the national average. In 2014, Alaska housed 5,082 inmates, or 0.69% of the State’s 738,000 population. The corresponding national incarceration rate was “only” 0.48%.

These troubling statistics are driven by many factors, including a “get tough” approach since the 1980s and 1990s to all types of crime, and a comparative lack of available social service programs for the mentally ill, the homeless, and those with substance abuse problems. Incarceration has become the default response to many social ills, even if incarceration fails to solve the underlying problem or produce the best results for society. A 2007 Alaska Judicial Council study, Criminal Recidivism in Alaska, reported that 66% of released prisoners re-offended within three years. The recently passed crime reform bill, Alaska Senate Bill 91, is intended to address and improve these dispiriting results, but that bill can’t solve the underlying problems that lead to mass incarceration.

We must determine what we can do to lower criminality in the first place. Social science over the past 15 years has identified several ways to substantially reduce criminal conduct, including, most surprisingly, effective early childhood education. Multiple long-term longitudinal studies, including in Florida and Illinois have shown that effective childhood education during the critical pre-kindergarten years leads to significantly higher high school graduation rates, higher earnings and home ownership rates, lower welfare use, and fewer arrests. Few public investments provide a better “benefit for the buck” than early childhood education.

Most education programs and funding responsibilities rest with the states. In a time of steep budget cuts, it is tempting to cut early education investments. Yet despite long term budget problems, the State of Alaska must do its best to preserve funding for early childhood education programs; doing so will reduce the need to spend money later on for courts, prisons, and probation officers. The federal government concentrates its educational support in the area of early childhood education, specifically through programs such as the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act, Title I assistance for schools with high numbers of children from low-income families, and Head Start programs. These are worthwhile programs that deserve our support and merit increased funding. Investing in these early education programs will also help our children benefit from middle and high school education programs, which often cannot reach children who don’t have the basic building blocks taught in early education programs. There is a “point of no return” where a lack of early investment guarantees failure later on.

We must continue to invest in our future and one of the best places to do so is early childhood education. Investing in our children at the start of their lives will prevent many social ills later on, and will ultimately save taxpayer dollars.

Washington Post: Yes, U.S. locks people up at a higher rate than any other country>>
Alaska Justice Forum: National Assessment of Adult Literacy and Literacy among Prison Inmates>>
Florida Department of Corrections: Admissions test at around the sixth grade level; 71.7% Below GED Prep Level>>
Begin to Read: Literacy Statistics>>
Alaska Justice Forum: Alaska’s Five-Year Prisoner Reentry Strategic Plan, 2011–2016>>

Margaret on Public Education and College>>