Lewis & Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton speaks to early childhood education's role in crime reduction during a virtual panel hosted Feb. 17 by the nonprofit Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

Throughout his 36 years in law enforcement, people have asked Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton time and again how society can reduce crime. Dutton’s answer is always the same: improve education.

Last week, Dutton made a concerted pitch for early childhood education during a virtual panel hosted by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonprofit organization of law enforcement officers from across the country that advocates for bipartisan strategies to reduce crime. 

The event corresponded with the organization’s release of a new report on the benefits of expanded pre-kindergarten programming nationwide, including strong correlations between preschool participation and lower rates of criminal activity later in life. Dutton seized the moment to share his Montana-based insights, saying that he’s seen children turn to delinquent behavior in the absence of quality educational opportunities and continue to engage in that pattern throughout their adult lives. Advocating for earlier and better opportunities for children isn’t just good policy, he said, “it’s good old-fashioned police work.”

“It doesn’t tell them what they’re going to believe or how to think, but it helps them get integrated into a society where they can follow the rules,” Dutton said. “I mean, if they want to color outside the lines, they’ll do it on paper, not necessarily outside in society.”

While private preschools and a network of 20 Head Start programs afford some Montana children access to early childhood education, the state remains one of six states without a widely available and publicly funded pre-K option. Lawmakers in Helena have tussled over the issue for years, with Democrats touting pre-K’s benefits for childhood development and Republicans expressing concerns over the cost to the state and potential impacts to private preschool and daycare providers. 

Montana provided preschool funding for 1,300 students in 2018-2019 through a federally backed pilot program, but the Republican-controlled Legislature resisted Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s request for $30 million to continue the program in 2019. The most recent attempt at compromise, which would have allowed local school districts the option to establish and fund their own free preschool programs for children aged 3 to 5, failed on the Senate floor on a party-line vote in the 2021 session with Republicans opposing the bill.

“We have a very booming private preschool business in Montana that we need to support,” Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, said in opposing the proposal on the Senate floor last April. “Cost is huge. If we go to public preschool, we have to use the Board of Public Ed’s curriculum, and certifying teachers with the right endorsements to be able to teach this adds significant cost to the situation.”

Dutton’s advocacy for early childhood education predates recent political skirmishes. He’s been a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids for 13 years, stressing to lawmakers, fellow law enforcement officers, and anyone else who will listen that it’s not simply a matter of boosting test scores. It can also reduce crime, he said.

In an interview with Montana Free Press this week, Dutton said education is inextricably linked to a child’s academic, social and professional future. Providing young children with a stable, reassuring educational setting in their early years can help “nip crime at the incipient stage.”

“I have dealt with kids when I was younger that had entered into the juvenile system, I have dealt with them as adults, and now I deal with them as grandparents. And they still have a life of crime,” Dutton said. “I have also dealt with some young people, I would say kids, that take a hand up and get involved with the education system and are able to turn their life around.”

That experience is what led Dutton, during last week’s panel, to directly advocate for the passage of universal pre-K legislation in Congress. 

President Joe Biden’s $2.1-trillion Build Back Better plan proposed to spend $390 billion to implement universal pre-K, but that bill has stalled, failing to gain support from Republicans and two key Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

Studies on the long-term academic and behavioral effects of preschool programs have yielded mixed results over the past few decades. Given how varied early childhood education opportunities are from state to state and city to city, researchers have gleaned what insights they can from a handful of studies. Studies in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oklahoma focused primarily on specific low-income or minority student populations in well-funded, high-quality preschool programs. A study recently released by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that children enrolled in a voluntary, state-funded preschool program in Tennessee from 2009 to 2011 suffered worse academic and behavioral outcomes as they aged, touching off a firestorm of debate in education circles over the importance of program quality and adequate funding. But the broad consensus across existing academic literature is that children enrolled in preschool display better academic outcomes later in school and even a lower propensity for delinquent behavior.

“The benefits of quality early childhood education reach far beyond academic success and school readiness,” Caitlin Jensen, executive director of the nonprofit Zero to Five Montana, told MTFP via email. “When children receive the care and education they need during their most formative years, we see fewer children with behavioral problems, reduced costs in the health and criminal justice system, more children who succeed in school, graduate high school, go on to attend college, and even earn more.”

A December 2019 report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a quasi-governmental nonpartisan research think-tank, concluded that early childhood education potentially led to higher earnings in the workforce later in life, and stated that the financial benefits of universal pre-K were 78% likely to exceed the costs of such programs.

The report released last week by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids cited WSIPP’s finding that universal pre-K carried an after-cost benefit of $15,000 per student. Based on that figure, the group calculated Montana’s return on investment for offering expanded preschool to 16,000 Montana students at $240 million over the lifetimes of those students. The factors built into that per-student benefit include increased wage earnings in adulthood and decreased societal costs such as special education. 

A fiscal note prepared for Montana’s most recent legislative push last year estimated that expanding pre-K would cost the state $22.4 million over the next two years. The note also estimated the total number of eligible 4-year-olds in the state at 11,940.

Dutton, who also serves as president of the Western States Sheriffs’ Association, is familiar with the financial arguments raised by those critical of investing in publicly funded universal pre-K. He said he recognizes the need for solutions to near-term challenges, particularly in the realm of law enforcement. The Lewis and Clark County jail currently detains 106 people, below the facility’s maximum occupancy. Dutton’s office monitors roughly 300 more people through various jail diversion programs. Dutton said any expansion of early childhood education wouldn’t put a dent in those numbers for more than a decade. However, some investments have to be made with an eye toward the future, not toward immediate gains, he said.

“Someone has to start somewhere,” Dutton said. “Someone has to draw the line in the sand and say, ‘Today we start, and then we will see the benefits 15 years down the road.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...