Matthew Van Houten

Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten. 

In my time as an attorney, I’ve seen countless young people make decisions that lead them down destructive paths.

Despite the desire that all of us in the justice system have to help these kids, by the time we get to interact with them, it’s often too late. One bad decision made by these young people can negatively impact them and their loved ones for the rest of their lives, perpetuating cycles of crime and violence that can pass onto future generations.

It’s been my top priority as District Attorney to promote a safe, healthy, and just community by not only fighting against crime, but also by advocating for evidence-based approaches to reducing crime. And the best way to reduce crime in any community is by working to ensure it never happens in the first place.

One of the best tools we’ve found to keep children on the right path and away from crime is high-quality preschool. It’s critical that young people have a strong foundation on which to begin their lives, as numerous studies have shown that high-quality preschool can lead to decreased rates of future incarceration and better academic outcomes, including higher rates of high school graduation. Significant investments in high-quality preschool would be a major boost to long-term public safety.

Fortunately, federal lawmakers have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make such an investment.

Through the Build Back Better Act (BBB), lawmakers have the opportunity to pass preschool provisions that would allow roughly six million additional children to access high-quality preschool nationwide, including 298,000 in New York alone. This would help thousands of children in our state start on a path towards better academic performance and achievement and a reduced likelihood of being involved in crime later in life.

Helping young people have access to that path is one of the reasons I joined the national law enforcement membership group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. It’s an organization that includes over 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors. For the past 25 years, they’ve consistently advocated for evidence-based solutions that strengthen long-term public safety by putting kids on a productive, crime-free path—a mission I’m proud to be a part of.

The preschool provisions included in BBB are incredibly important to achieving this goal, as research shows that positive preschool experiences help children build cognitive and social-emotional skills during a unique period of brain development that can serve them well for a lifetime. And, while this alone is reason enough to invest in preschool, a forthcoming Fight Crime: Invest in Kids research brief shows that such programs can provide a great return on investment (ROI) as well.

The brief highlights an independent cost-benefit analysis that showed that preschool programs can return an average societal “profit” (economic benefits minus costs) of more than $15,000 for every child served. Applying this per-child “profit” to the additional children served by BBB’s preschool provisions, we see an overall ROI of $90 billion over the lifetime of these kids, including $4.47 billion in New York alone.

The factors that contribute to this ROI include increases in adulthood earnings contributed to by higher test scores, as well as decreases in costs to society, such as added expenses created by children being held back in school or needing special education.

The Build Back Better Act represents an opportunity to increase public safety in a way that also produces a solid return on investment through its preschool provisions. Federal policy makers must realize the tremendous benefit to our communities that this would represent through significant crime prevention and ROI benefits, and can’t miss this opportunity to make a transformative investment in early education.

Matthew Van Houten is the District Attorney for Tompkins County and a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids

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