Hoke at SCI Albion

Crawford County Sheriff Nick Hoke addresses people gathered at the State Correctional Institution at Albion on Tuesday. 

ALBION, Erie County — Before a backdrop of towering fences intertwined with barbed wire, a group of officials from Erie and Crawford counties joined forces Tuesday to support the time and resources needed to prevent today's children from ending up behind similar fences.

Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and law enforcement leaders met outside the State Correctional Institution at Albion to support a report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids that says spending $40 million on pre-K education could save the state nearly $150 million and reduce the number of people in jail.

"We have a prison behind us," Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri told those gathered Tuesday. "People must be wondering why all these law enforcement officials are here asking that something different be done."

Daneri said everyone who works in law enforcement enjoys keeping people safe but does not enjoy putting them behind bars. Daneri, and others gathered on Tuesday, believe investing in children at a young age can not only prevent the chances of imprisonment down the road but also provide them a better chance in life.

Statistics in the 2015 Pennsylvania Youth Survey show that there's a fork in the road from third grade on, according to Daneri. 

"We have to get to them early so there's a better chance they won't end up here," he said as he pointed toward the fences.

The report shows how an increased $40 million state investment for expanding high-quality pre-kindergarten programs — as included in Gov. Tom Wolf's 2017-18 budget — would boost high school graduation rates, reduce the number of people who are incarcerated in the state and lead to about $150 million in corrections and other cost savings.

Crawford County Sheriff Nick Hoke pointed out statistics in the report that indicate problems for youth years before they get to graduation. 

"No child is born predestined for a life of crime," Hoke said. In the report, a survey showed that 53 percent of students who were suspended in elementary school ended up being placed in a residential juvenile system when they got older, he said.

Bruce Clash, director of Pre-K for PA, told those gathered a few of the statistics compiled in the report that have speared an initiative to direct more funding to early childhood education. 

"Only 39 percent of three-to-four- year olds in the state have access to high-quality Pre-K education," Clash said. "Too many families can't afford it."

The report also shows that 40 percent of inmates in state prisons did not graduate from high school, according to Clash. 

Building on the shared belief that all children should have the opportunity to enter school ready to succeed, a broad coalition of organizations launched the Pre-K for PA campaign in 2014. The campaign set out to make pre-K a priority issue in the gubernatorial and legislative elections, advocating increased access to high-quality pre-kindergarten for all Pennsylvania’s 3- and 4-year olds.

State Sen. Dan Laughlin, who serves part of Erie County, agrees that investing in Pre-K will reap benefits in the future, but he also wants to address the needs of those in prison now. 

"Prison needs to be an education system," Laughlin said. "Those in prison now should not leave without at least a GED and possibly a career path."

"We spend $100 million to advertise liquor in this state," Laughlin said. "We need to spend that on education."

Wetzel appreciated Laughlin's enlightening remark. 

"I never knew the state was spending so much to advertise liquor," he said. "My question is why wouldn't we spend that money on education instead?"

Lorri Drumm can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at lorrid@meadvilletribune.com.

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