Nevertheless, the biggest payoff in reducing juvenile delinquency is to place an emphasis on early child care and Pre-K education. Over the past few years, the Center for Business and Economic Research has issued a series of reports providing strong evidence that these programs result in:
• Higher school completion rates
• Reduced juvenile delinquency
• Declines in teen pregnancy
• Greater lifetime earnings
• Healthier lifestyles
• Less drug and substance abuse
Based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, the center found a $5.20 return for every state dollar invested in these programs. West Virginia was one of the first states to provide for voluntary universal Pre-K programs for 4-year-old and some 3-year-old students and now ranks fifth in the nation for access for 4-year-olds. Every county now has Pre-K programs, and 70 percent of those eligible are enrolled moving toward the goal of 80 percent. An additional $17 million is in the governor's budget for Pre-K. Access in rural areas, however, remains a problem, limiting enrollment.
The West Virginia picture for early child care programs is not as optimistic. Few of the state's child care facilities meet national accreditation standards. The cost of child care is so high that low- and middle-income workers are unable to participate. Rural areas are particularly lacking in facilities. While the state has initiated a Quality Rating and Improvement Program, it is woefully under-funded to raise standards and increase access.
The problems of prison overcrowding and juvenile delinquency should be solved together. Converting juvenile facilities for adult use, providing community-based treatment, and early release for non-violent offenders helps with the immediate problem. Investing in early childhood and Pre-K provides a longer-term answer.Kent is Lewis Distinguished Professor of Business at Marshall University.