BANGOR — A student who drops out of school is more likely to commit crimes later in life and go to jail, a new report released by an anti-crime advocacy group states.

That’s why it’s so important for youngsters to get a high-quality early education, local law enforcement officers said at a press conference held Wednesday at Eastern Maine Community College to announce the newly released report, “School or the Streets: Crime and Maine’s Dropout Crisis.”

“Far too often, today’s dropouts become tomorrow’s criminals,” Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said. “By providing them with a solid education … we increase their chances of having a successful life.”

The report has staggering statistics suggesting that Maine faces a dropout crisis, said Kim Gore, state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Maine, a bipartisan group made up of 120 law enforcement leaders and crime survivors from all over the state.

“Data shows us that here in Maine two out of 10 [high school students] do not graduate on time,” she said.

To combat the dropout figures, evidence from two long-term studies show “high-quality preschool education increases high school graduation rates by 44 percent,” Gore said.

“The key to reducing crime and preventing dropouts is increased early education,” Veazie Police Chief Mark Leonard said.

Dropout percentages differ greatly according to the way they are figured, the report acknowledges.

To illustrate the discrepancies in counting, Bangor High School has a dropout rate of 6.45 percent for the 2006-07 school year, according to a Maine Department of Education report, while the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids report has much higher figures. It states that 21 percent of the students in Bangor failed to graduate high school in four years; 23 percent of Portland’s youth never receive a diploma; and the ratio jumps to 35 percent in Lewiston.

Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said that the report’s figure is “surprising” to her.

“It’s extremely misleading,” she said. “Obviously, they are not calculating it the same way” as the Department of Education.

The commissioner of education now is working on a uniform way to calculate dropout rates, which should place everyone on the same playing field, she said.

“We need one way, a consistent way, to report these [figures] so we are able to identify the students who need further assistance,” Webb said.

She added, “The very best thing we can do with our students is work with them at a very early age and offer a quality education to provide them with as many opportunities in their future as possible.”

The Fight Crime: Invest in Kids report’s figures were calculated using 2004-05 data and were created for the report by the Editorial Project in Education Research Center, a division of Editorial Projects in Education, a nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week.

While the numbers may differ, the message is the same, Brewer Superintendent Daniel Lee said Wednesday. The Department of Education’s dropout rate for Brewer is 5.77 percent for 2006-07.

“There is no debate that early education does have an effect on graduation rates,” he said. “Early intervention is key. That’s why most schools in the state of Maine are expanding preschool programs to include 4-year-olds.”

Brewer has doubled its pre-kindergarten program this year and will have six pre-k classrooms once the community’s new school is completed in 2010. It will be able to serve up to 240 students.

“Every child in Brewer will have the opportunity to have free preschool” once the new school is open, he said.

The “School or the Streets” report also states that 68 percent of state prison inmates have not received a high school diploma.

A snapshot of the inmates at the Penobscot County Jail on Wednesday showed a smaller, but still startling, percentage, said Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross.

“Of the 177 inmates we have in our facility today, 57 have not graduated high school,” he said. That works out to nearly 35 percent.

The jail is often at capacity or over capacity, and it costs around $100 a day per inmate, which places a burden on taxpayers, Ross said.

“By fully funding quality early education programs, we can boost graduation rates and reduce crime,” Ross said. “It’s a very worthwhile investment of our monies. We need to focus on young children.”

The “School or the Streets” report also states that “dropouts earn less, pay fewer taxes, and are more likely to collect welfare and turn to a life of crime.”

By increasing graduation rates in males by 10 percent, the state could save approximately $29 million each year, with approximately $6 million coming from reduced crime costs, the report states.

Gail Kelly, state director for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was at the gathering because “Olympia has always been behind youth programs. It is important. There is no question about it.”

The group called on state and federal lawmakers to push for increased funding to support and expand pre-kindergarten programs statewide.

After the press conference, Gastia, Ross and Leonard went to the college’s child care center and read “Officer Buckle and Gloria” to 3- and 4-year-olds.