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Babies deserve priority over prisons

Babies whose mothers had no prenatal care are three times more likely to be born with health defects, but the people who can help are too busy talking about criminals to notice. Instead, in the Florida Legislature, lawmakers are scheduled today to debate spending plans that would invest in prison inmates at the expense of pregnant women.

How do they explain those priorities?

The Healthy Start program, which provides health screening and care for roughly 226,000 pregnant women and infants, is only two years old. But already it is beginning to show why investments in prevention can pay substantial dividends. Since 1990, the rate of infant deaths in Florida has dropped by 10 percent. In health care dollars alone, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) estimates the state has saved $200-million in caring for seriously ill infants. More important, the declining mortality rate translates into the preservation of 482 young lives.

Jim Towey, HRS secretary, makes the obvious and compelling legislative case for early prevention programs: "We can make the most of our dollars in education, social services and criminal justice by raising healthy children. Back-end programs will never do when the problems could have been prevented in the first place."

In the Capitol, Gov. Lawton Chiles is asking for a $20-million expansion of the Healthy Start investment. But neither the House nor the Senate has obliged. The Senate's proposed budget, in fact, gives no money for expansion. None. Its budget writers argued the state could afford no substantial increase for babies even as they agreed to throw $323-million at new prisons as part of a $1-billion buildup.

Can't they see the connection?

Though this year's healthy children won't reduce the crime rate in time for the fall elections, the way they begin their lives will have a more lasting impact on Florida. Simply put, healthy children are more likely to become productive adults.

The prison cells may make the politicians feel safer, but the maternity wards can make the state more secure.