Saving Public Resources and Protecting Our Most Important Resource: Children

Cross-posted from Huffington Post and DailyKos.

Education, public safety, and the economy: three vastly complex issue areas that time and again are proven to be inextricably linked.

By doing what it takes to keep kids in school in every corner of our state, we can save literally billions of dollars in public resources and greatly improve public safety.

Most of us in law enforcement have known this for many years. As San Francisco’s District Attorney, I see the direct impact of what happens when kids don’t stay in school; young lives are lost to street violence or prison at an appalling rate, our state loses more resources and our communities are less safe.

The wake-up calls keep sounding. The California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara just published a devastating report exposing the impact of high school dropouts on California’s economy. The report concludes that high school dropouts account for a disproportionate amount of juvenile crime. By contrast, graduating from high school results in a 17% reduction in violent crime and a decrease of approximately 10% in property and drug-related crimes. The juvenile crimes committed by dropouts cost California $1.1 billion per year. Add in social and medical costs, lost income taxes and associated economic losses, and the report estimates that dropouts cost the state more than $24 billion per year.

To close the horrendous budget deficit this year, California lawmakers reduced the public school system budget by $4.3 billion. Failing to educate our children and lower dropout rates is a recipe for disaster, and the price will be paid by communities and individuals victimized by crime. The direct connection between education, crime and victimization is clear. Harvard sociologist Bruce Western and Becky Pettit found that the cumulative risk of death or imprisonment by age 30-34 nearly triples for men who do not finish high school. Fourteen percent of white men and a staggering 62% of black men who don’t finish high school are dead or in prison by the age of 30-34.

What can be done? Plenty.

First, dropout prevention has to start early. The problem should be red-flagged when children first become habitual truants. Nationwide, 75% of all truant children will eventually drop out of school. In San Francisco, we found that 10% of all students are chronic truants and 40%, or more than 2,000 of those truant students, are in elementary school.

That’s right. Elementary school.

So we targeted that problem and partnered with the San Francisco Unified School District to combat school truancy.

At the time, many people asked why the city’s chief prosecutor was worried about the problem of school attendance. My answer was simple, and as our partnership now enters its fourth year, the reason remains the same: a child going without an education is a crime and it leads to more dangerous crimes. My job is to protect the public and combating truancy is a smart approach to crime prevention. We can either pay attention now, or pay the price later.

So every fall I send out letters to parents across San Francisco letting them know that truancy is against the law and that I will enforce that law. During the school year, prosecutors from my office hold mediations with parents and truant students at schools across the city to reinforce this message and urge them to get help to improve their children’s attendance. We asked business and faith leaders to engage with the city’s schools to provide mentors and resources. We opened a stay-in-school hotline and coordinated support services for families needing help. In most cases, attendance improves. But when it does not, my office prosecutes parents in a specialized Truancy Court we created that combines supervision and services for those families. To date, I have only had to prosecute 20 parents of young children for truancy.

Our groundbreaking strategy has worked. The majority of parents who have been brought to Truancy Court have dramatically improved their children’s attendance in school. But the effects of the strategy ripple far beyond these families. In the last year alone, truancy among elementary school students dropped by an average of 20%. In this new school year, my office will work closely with school district staff to expand our strategy to include high school age chronically truant students.

We have the tools that can start solving this problem. But first, we have got to commit to a bipartisan agenda that is smart on crime. The lesson for those of us in law enforcement is that we have to embrace our responsibility for crime prevention and engage in the serious business of helping to build healthier communities.

Preventing truancy does more than protect public safety. It protects precious public resources in the midst of California’s worst economic crisis in history. If ever there were a time to reassess how our state spends public resources, the time is unquestionably now.

Let’s start a serious dialogue about our collective responsibility to change the odds for children and youth. I urge you to contact your local District Attorney, school board and other elected officials about this problem. And please let me know what else I might have left out, how else we can work to solve this problem. Kids will either get an education in school or in the streets. The fabric of our community, and the future of our economy, depends on our ability to ensure that education happens in class.

Harris is the author of Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer.

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