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Early start to stopping life of crime


The string of deadly shootings that prompted Fort Wayne Urban League leaders to look for ways to stop violence might have been clustered in one area of the community. But the solution won’t come from only southeast Fort Wayne, and the Urban League is right to take a wider approach.

How wide? Emphasis on preschool education is one priority the plan identifies. It’s an excellent goal, given that Indiana has long lagged most other states in early learning. Elsewhere, law enforcement groups have been champions of preschool investments because the connection among struggling students, dropouts and crime is well documented.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is an anti-crime group of more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors working to share research on what prevents young people from becoming criminals. It has active participation in other states, but Indiana law enforcement representatives have been nearly silent on the topic.

In Kalamazoo, Mich., last week members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids held a news conference at the county jail to release a report – “I’m the Guy You Pay Later” – showing how a proposed state-federal early childhood education partnership could save Michigan taxpayers $206 million a year in incarceration costs. Indiana and Fort Wayne could see similar savings and achieve the more important goal of saving lives.

The study cited by Michigan law enforcement officials notes that the federal cost of preschool – $75 billion over 10 years – represents just 10 percent of the $75 billion spent each year to incarcerate adults in federal and state prisons and local jails.

“My jail is filled with people who took the wrong path in life,” said Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller. “For many, the trouble began with academic struggles and behavioral problems early on, resulting in later school failure and crime. It shouldn’t have to be that way.”

While the violent effects are seen disproportionately in southeast Fort Wayne, the remedy must come from widespread investments in education and youth.

“We can’t do it by ourselves,” said Urban League President Jonathan Ray of the organization’s anti-violence plan. “We have to empower people and we have to engage others.”

The Urban League’s plan, Building Bridges to a Better Community, comes from a series of meetings held since March.

As of last week, Fort Wayne and Allen County have seen 31 shooting deaths this year – already eight more than last year. Joseph Conwell, 22, was the latest victim. He was shot and killed in the 3100 block of Lillie Street, just blocks from the Urban League’s offices.

The anti-violence plan will be shared with the mayor, City Council, area lawmakers and the state’s congressional delegation. Each of the officials has the voice and authority to push for improvements in Indiana’s lackluster support for early learning. Law enforcement partners, including the Fort Wayne Police Department and Allen County Sheriff’s Department, would be effective voices in urging those officials to step up on behalf of children.

A region-wide education initiative called the “The Big Goal” already has early learning as one of its focus areas, making it another obvious partner for the Urban League. If the goals are safe, successful communities and cost-efficient government, the time to join forces is now.