Preventing Violence Begins in the First Years of Life

Violence was a central topic in the recent mayoral race. In a poll by the Commercial Appeal over fifty percent of respondents listed crime as our community’s number one problem. While there were some big ideas proposed for reducing crime, we need to remember to think small: an important part of the solution requires focusing on our youngest children.

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That’s because there is powerful evidence in study after study that healthy social and emotional development in the first years of life significantly reduces the risk that today’s toddlers will become tomorrow’s violent teenagers or adults. Research is equally clear that programs that target children early in life are more successful than programs that start in late childhood or adolescence.

The people fighting crime on the front lines – police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors – know this already. More than 5,000 of them have joined together to call for more federal funding for early childhood programs. They know that in addition to its other benefits, high quality early care and education is a crime prevention weapon, and research suggests that the funding would be more than offset by reductions in the cost of incarceration.

Every year in Memphis and Shelby County more than $600 million is spent on law enforcement, criminal justice, and corrections, but only a small fraction of this amount is spent on programs proven to contribute to early childhood social and emotional development.

While the FBI doesn’t rank cities based on crime rates, its statistics suggest that among large cities, Memphis has the second highest rate of violent crime. 2014 saw a spike in the crime rate, especially homicides (up 13 percent) and rapes (up 14.6 percent). According to Operation Safe Community, the murder rate in August of 2015 was down 5.2 percent and rapes down 17 percent when compared to August of 2014.

While the crime rate may fluctuate, the fact is that violent crime remains too prevalent in Memphis, and everyone in the city is affected. It is more difficult to recruit new businesses and investment, the quality of life is eroded, taxpayers foot the bill for the climbing costs of fighting crime, and neighborhoods’ safety and vitality are threatened at the time when Memphis is working hard to attract new residents.

It is inarguable that violent crime is a drag on the performance of Memphis and clouds its future, and it is equally clear that the public, in opinion polls, believes that the answer to reducing crime remains to be found. After all, the violent crime rate remains stubbornly high despite our current prevention efforts.

Today, Memphis’ prevention programs focus on adolescents and young adults. We have numerous programs that address youth violence and gangs and offer alternatives to criminal behavior for adolescents. These programs are helpful, but we are intervening years too late.

Instead, Memphis and Shelby County should look to a proven, data-supported, research-driven violence prevention strategy – one that targets social and emotional development in early childhood. It is in these early years when children’s growing understanding of who they are, what they feel, and how they interact with others sets the stage for later behavior, social skills, and general well-being. For example, the development of self-control allows young children to control their impulses and express their feelings appropriately.

By shifting our focus to early childhood, we more effectively fight crime before it even begins by providing children with more positive experiences promoting the growth of essential lifelong skills.

In other words, it makes good business sense to advocate for early childhood programs that instill the kind of social and emotional development our children need.

One such program is the Regional Intervention Program (RIP), a standard-setting program that guides parents in learning the skills to work effectively with their own children while receiving training and support from professionals and experienced RIP families. With programs like RIP, we are preventing future community violence with our best crime-fighting strategy: enriched, stimulating experiences to enhance the social and emotional development of our youngest children.

It’s time to make our children’s early social and emotional development a top public priority—for their future and the future of the entire community.