As sheriff of Penobscot County and having spent my 27-year career in law enforcement, I cannot emphasize enough the importance and benefits of high-quality early childhood education for Maine’s kids, especially our at-risk youth. These programs benefit our youth, enhance the safety of our communities and advance the success of our state. The vast majority of my law enforcement colleagues across Maine agree that early learning programs are a critical and wise investment for Maine.

Research backs up what I have long observed throughout my career, that high-quality early education is one of the best crime-prevention tools we have in our arsenal.

In one study that took place over the course of nearly 40 years, researchers studied children who attended Michigan’s Perry Preschool along with similar at-risk children who did not. They found that at-risk children who did not participate in the high-quality program were five times more likely to be chronic offenders by age 27 than children who did. By age 40, individuals served by the program were 48 percent less likely to have served time in jail or prison.

Equally impressive are results from Chicago’s Child-Parent Center, which has served more than 100,000 3- and 4-year-olds since 1967. This study found that, by age 18, children who did not participate in the programs were 70 percent more likely to have been arrested for a violent crime. By age 24, individuals served by the program were 20 percent less likely to have served time in jail or prison.

The evidence shows these programs are critical for our future public safety, and for many of the kids, they are a ticket to a successful life that does not include crime. It has been my responsibility to meet with parents and tell them that their teenager or young child was the victim of a violent crime. I also have had the responsibility to inform a parent that his or her teen was the suspect in a violent crime. Each case is a tragedy for those families and our community, and each often is preventable.

It is important to remember that crime is costly for Maine. Although crime has fallen over the past 20 years nationally and Maine has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, there are just over 1,700 violent crimes and 24,300 property crimes committed in our state every year. Additionally, arrests for drug abuse are on the rise in Maine. Maine has about 2,100 adults incarcerated in state prisons, and we spend millions to house, feed and keep surveillance on our criminals, many of whom learn how to be better criminals while incarcerated and return to a life of crime upon their release.

The more we do early on to establish and improve programs that prevent at-risk kids from engaging in criminal activity in the future, the more money we save in the end. If we reach these kids with high-quality early childhood education programs, they will be more likely to stay in school, do well, graduate on time, lead productive lives as adults and not enter the corrections system. They may not become a part of the 41 percent of adults in Maine jails and prisons who do not have a high school diploma or GED, compared with 8 percent of the general state population.

And if we get quality right, there is a huge return on investment. A well-respected, independent analysis of more than 20 different studies of preschool programs cited in Fight Crime: Invest In Kids Maine report “ We Are The Ones You Pay Later” showed that preschool can return, on average, a profit to society of $30,000 for every child served, with much of the savings coming from reduced crime costs alone.

One way or another, we pay for Maine’s at-risk kids. Either we pay early by providing them with learning programs that give them a solid chance to succeed or we pay a lot more for their failure. The research backs up what law enforcement knows: Early learning programs can make a difference in reducing future crime and corrections costs. That’s why we must act early by sustaining, growing and increasing participation in high-quality prekindergarten, Head Start and other early learning programs provided in child care settings across Maine. They are an excellent and deserved investment in our youth, communities and state.

Troy Morton is the sheriff of Penobscot County.