Helping at-risk children develop social skills and the ability to learn before they enter school prevents crime in the long run, retired Mesa Police Chief Dennis Donna said Monday.
“We need to invest in the education and development of today’s most at-risk kids, so they don’t become tomorrow’s high-risk offenders,” he said at a news conference opposing a plan to eliminate the voter-approved First Things First program.
Joined by retired Paradise Valley Police Chief John Wintersteen, Donna read a book at Phoenix Day, the oldest continuously operated child development center in Arizona.
Proposition 302 would transfer $325 million from First Things First, which provides early childhood health and development services, to help address the state budget deficit.
The program was approved in 2006 out of concern about a gap in services addressing the needs of children 5 and under. It’s funded from an 80-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes.
Wintersteen said it’s far better to bolster a child’s educational future than to slam shut a prison door.
“Intervening with at-risk kids and affording them greater educational opportunities will improve public safety in the long run,” he said.
Both retired chiefs said they are skeptical of claims by state officials that money transferred from First Things First will be used to maintain similar programs. Wintersteen said voters’ wishes, made clear in 2006, should be honored.
“They said, ‘This is important … this is something for the long-term health of our state.’”
State Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a telephone interview that the state faces a $1.6 billion shortfall and must carefully prioritize the limited funds available for public programs.
“There are need-to-have programs and nice-to-have programs,” Kavanagh said. “It’s all about priorities, and the programs the state is trying to save are far more vital than the nice-to-have First Things First program.”
He said the state has already identified programs it would like to save with the additional funding from the First Things First funding, such as children’s health care programs, vaccinations and hiring additional Child Protective Services investigators to prevent abuse.
Garrick Taylor, a spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said First Things First is “laudable” but not a priority in the current budget environment.
“This is a matter of budget prioritization,” Taylor said. “We aren’t passing judgement on the program.”