A growing number of preschoolers have headed to class this fall in St. Paul and elsewhere in Minnesota and, in the eyes of the law, that is an investment worth making.

Quality preschool can help prevent kids from becoming career criminals, according to Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows, speaking Thursday as part of a national campaign for $75 billion in new federal funding over 10 years to open preschool opportunities for low- and middle-income children.

Bellows and County Attorney Jim Backstrom, who belong to a national group called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, offered the remarks at a county jail news conference.

Minnesota recently pumped another $40 million-plus into early childhood education, a fact noted on a chart displayed prominently on Thursday. Minnesota's investment, in fact, was the second-highest among the 25 states that earmarked new money this year for pre-kindergartners, heightening optimism at Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

"This is the year for preschool," Chris Beakey, the group's communications director, said at the jail Thursday.

Backstrom said local prosecutors and law enforcement officials were proud of the efforts made this year by Gov. Mark Dayton and state legislators, but the work must continue, he said, "not just in Minnesota, but across the nation."

He and 11 other local leaders, among them Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, have signed a letter asking Congress to work with the Obama administration to create a state-federal partnership that would provide preschool for every 4-year-old in families with income below 200 percent of the poverty line — or $39,060 for a family comprised of a single parent and two children.

The proposal is not without its critics.

In a recent blog posting, Peter Nelson, public policy director for the Center of the American Experiment, said that the initiative, as initially proposed by the president, raised several concerns at both the federal and state levels, including what it might mean for Minnesota's new preschool scholarships. In addition, Nelson wrote, "experience strongly suggests that a big new federal program is no solution to improve America's education system."

From a crimefighter's perspective, Bellows argued that a $75 billion investment could be recouped through reduced incarceration costs alone.

In its research, Fight Crime: Invest In Kids cites several studies, including the Perry Preschool project, which tracked 123 low-income Michigan children for 40 years starting in the 1960s. Those who attended a high quality preschool, researchers found, were less likely to have been sentenced to prison or jail, while non-participants were five times more likely to be chronic offenders with five or more arrests by the age of 27.

In addition, Backstrom said, the Perry Preschool program saw a 44 percent increase in graduation rates by age 40.

A table accompanying the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids report shows that the proportion of students not graduating from high school on time in the seven-county metro area ranged from 11 percent in Washington County to 34 percent in Hennepin County. In Dakota County, 17 percent of students failed to graduate on time, the data shows.

At the Dakota County jail, Bellows said, 40 percent of inmates did not graduate from high school.

He spoke in the jail's gymnasium in front of a mural painted by jail inmates. Clearly, the sheriff said, the inmates had talent. Perhaps, he added, if they'd gone to preschool, they would have succeeded later, and then painted elsewhere.

Bellows said the nation should invest in its littlest learners, and stop thinking of its prisoners: "What if?"