“I believe in redemption and that all can be redeemed,” Randall Liberty told an audience last week at University of Maine at Augusta, where he spoke of the many reforms he has instituted at Maine State Prison, where he is the warden.

Yet Liberty also knows just how heavy a lift that redemption is once someone comes under his watch. The factors that the warden sees influencing the criminal behaviors of his prisoners — substance abuse, mental illness, learning disabilities, poverty and neglect — dig their roots in deep early in a person’s life and become almost intractable by the time they are adults.

POVERTY THE FIRING PIN

Each of these factors informs and plays off the others, with poverty as the firing pin. The heavy burdens of growing up poor rewire the brain. Unstable and crowded housing, financial worry and family turmoil, poor health and inadequate child care create an atmosphere of stress.

Biologically, this stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that is useful in short bursts and small doses, such as when you have to suddenly avoid a deer in the road, or concentrate on an important exam.

But when a child’s developing brain is subjected to constant large injections of cortisol, it forever changes the way the brain processes stress, making it more difficult later in life to deal with stress and regulate emotions. The brain, used to dealing with constant immediate threats, can no longer plan well or control impulses. Paying attention gets more difficult and learning suffers. It becomes more likely the person will develop depression, anxiety, aggressive behaviors and substance abuse problems.

That is no excuse for criminal behavior; plenty of people grow up in rough conditions and don’t resort to a life of crime.

However, when so many prisoners share the same traits and backgrounds, it is a hint that something else is going on.

But don’t listen to us — listen to the sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors who say that some of their caseload could be lightened if we just spend a little more money and attention on early childhood education.

EARLY INTERVENTION

Maine members of those three professions have been touting the importance of early interventions in the lives of at-risk children through the We’re the Ones You Pay Later report.

After all, 41 percent of state prisoners don’t have a high school diploma or GED, as opposed to 8 percent of the general population, and dropping out is a symptom of each of the factors on Liberty’s list.

“The path to crime frequently starts with dropping out of high school,” the report quotes Michael Sauschuck, police chief for the city of Portland. “For many children, those academic and behavior problems show up before they even enter kindergarten.”

The report draws on study after study that show how investing in early childhood education can counteract to some degree the powerful forces of poverty and instability in a child’s life.

A Michigan program, for instance, found at-risk children enrolled in a pre-kindergarten program were five times less likely to become chronic criminal offenders than those who weren’t. Another analysis of 20 such pre-K programs found a profit of $30,000 per child in the form of lower costs from crime and incarceration and increased economic activity.

As Augusta police Chief Robert Gregoire points out, supporting the development of children early in their development may be the best form of crime prevention available. Investment in programs such as pre-K, home visiting and other parental supports, Head Start and child care more than pay for themselves, and give the victims of poverty a better shot at leading productive lives.

Liberty’s efforts to bring educational, therapeutic and vocational programs to the prison are commendable and worthwhile. The warden said last week that he used to think the only way to deal with crime was to “kick in doors and bring people to jail.” Now, he says, it’s important to get to the root cause of why people are in jail, and that change of heart in such a prominent position will make a real difference in prisoners’ lives.

But by the time he has an opportunity to make that assessment, it may already be too late. To make real progress, we have to help these Mainers before they find themselves in a prison cell.