If you're old enough to remember 50-cents-a-gallon fuel, you probably recognize this advertising slogan: You can pay me now, or you can me later.

Cheap gas may be a thing of the past, but there's still a lot to be said for investing a little up front to avoid big expenses down the line.

Our subject today isn't advertising jingles or oil filters. It's the crushing social and monetary cost of incarceration and the comparatively small expense of breaking the cradle-to-prison pipeline.

The U.S. incarceration rate — 716 per 100,000 people — is the world's highest. California spends $9.5 billion a year on prisons, with counties spending billions more on jails.

That's a prime example of "pay me later."

Cutting crime would cut incarceration, and investments in education and youth programs pay off in a reduction in crime. "Once they get to college or get a job, they don't have time to join a gang," Rep. Bobby Scott says.

Scott, D-Va., and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, sat down with The Press Democrat editorial board this week to discuss the Youth Promise Act.

Scott's bill would authorize the U.S. Justice Department to offer grants for local intervention programs that have been shown to prevent juvenile delinquency and gang activity. Depending on a community's resources and goals, Scott said, locally tailored programs might focus on Big Brothers or Boys and Girls Clubs, early childhood education, visiting nurses, perhaps college aid for low-income teens.

"If you have a good prevention policy," he said, "you're going to deter not only crime but teen pregnancy, school dropouts and other problems."

As an example, Scott cites Boston, which pioneered Operation Ceasefire and other programs combining law enforcement and social services to reduce youth violence.

Early intervention is one of the strategies endorsed by the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, which was formed after the Sandy Hook school massacre. Thompson chairs the task force.

Sonoma County adopted this approach in 2011 with its upstream investments strategy, which looks to direct public resources to programs that head off future cost in criminal justice, social service and public health programs.

For example, for every dollar spent on the Nurse Family Partnership — a voluntary, home visit program for first-time mothers — the county projected a saving of $1.47 on the mother and $16.62 on the child.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris is taking a "pay me now" approach with a proposal to better track truancy to ensure that kids are in school.

Children who don't read at a third grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, she said at a Sacramento news conference, and 82 percent of U.S. prison inmates are dropouts.

"There is a direct match between public education and public safety," Harris said.

Finding funding for early intervention programs is difficult with tight budgets, but, as Scott notes, a lot of money is being spent on septuagenarian and octogenarian inmates "who can't get up and down the cellblock without a walker."

Talk about paying later.