Can giving kids an early education prevent a life of crime?

A criminal in prison (Photo credit: Dan Bannister, ThinkStock)

On Sept. 21, the New Jersey Senate Education Committee took testimony on how to expand early childhood learning programs for children from birth through kindergarten. A study has shown that students who are in preschool classes in the state for 3- and 4-year-old do better on standardized tests in fourth and fifth grade.

That's not the only thing they might do.

According to testimony from West Orange Police Chief James Abbott, statistics show that kids who attend preschool are 40 percent less likely to be held back in school. He also cited numbers from the Chicago Child/Parent Centers preschool program which suggested a link between early education and a reduction in kids turning to a life of crime.

“Children not served by the program were five times more likely to be chronic lawbreakers by age 27. The children given access to Chicago Child/Parent Centers were 20 percent less likely to be arrested for a felony or be incarcerated as young adults,” Abbott said.

Abbott heads a group called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an anti-crime organization of prosecutors, police chiefs, sheriffs and violence survivors that tries to prevent kids from becoming criminals by lobbying policymakers and the general public.

According to Abbott, children who did not take part in the Chicago program were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18.

“We have to implement strategies to keep people from turning to crime in the first place. Education needs to be the focal point of that strategy,” Abbott suggested. “Oftentimes when we arrest an 18-year-old he already seems like a hardened criminal. It seems too late. We need to intervene early to keep kids on the right track.”

If New Jersey continues to invest in preschool the state should expect large reductions in crime as children become adults, Abbott predicted. Providing high quality preschool to more kids can only help, he said.

“I used to joke with our former superintendent of schools at graduation and we would say, ‘Some go to Yale and some go to jail.’ While I realize that not every child can be destined for Yale, no child should be destined for jail,” Abbott said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.