After lobbying Congress to ban weapons and put more officers on the street, police officials from around the country have seized on what they say will be an even more powerful anti-crime weapon: child care.
Thursday, more than 170 police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors called for the states and federal government to increase support for quality educational child care for preschoolers and after-school programs for older children.
They said after-school programs would keep children occupied in positive ways at a time of day when juvenile crime peaks. And they cited research indicating that children who have attended early education programs similar to Head Start are less likely to become delinquent offenders.
The group praised President Clinton’s recent proposal to spend nearly $22 billion over five years to improve child care and help low-income parents pay for it. If enacted, “it would be one of the most important steps Congress has taken to fight crime,” said Sanford A. Newman, president of a Washington group that brought together the law enforcement officials, called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
Their lobbying support adds a new twist to the growing child care debate, which could become a major legislative battle this year. Republican leaders have rejected the administration’s plan as too expensive and many have said any child care measure must provide help to stay-at-home parents as well as working parents.
Thursday, the debate shifted again as the crime-prevention argument triggered a new round of criticism.
“The whole idea that kids commit crimes simply because their parents aren’t around is specious,” said Darcy Olsen, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Most people in the country have spent time without their parents at one time or another and not become criminal.”
Brenda Hunter, a psychologist who appeared last week with the conservative Family Research Council in opposition to the president’s plan, said “the research is being misinterpreted” by those advocating more child care.
“The research supports consistent, sensitive and responsive nurturing, and mother is the best person to provide that,” she said.
But law enforcement officials at Thursday’s news conference urged that the child care debate not pit working parents against stay-at-home parents.
Arlington County, Va., Police Chief Edward A. Flynn, one of the police officials appealing for more child care funding, called it an “endless no-win debate over the philosophy of the family unit.” The reality, he said, is that most parents work out of economic necessity.
The group referred to several studies, including one at the Perry Preschool program in Michigan, which is similar to Head Start, which found children who had been in the program were five times less likely to become chronic lawbreakers than a comparable group that had not attended the program.
One of the important ingredients of such programs, said Newman, was parent education, which helps reduce child abuse and neglect. That, in turn, helps reduce the likelihood those children will grow up to be lawbreakers.
Child care and after-school programs “are smart spending,” Flynn said. “They can save us billions of tax dollars” that might otherwise be spent on imprisoning offenders and the other costs related to crime.
The group called for a bigger investment than Clinton’s plan - more than $130 billion over five years - to provide all families that need it good child care, after school care and help with parenting skills.