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January 29, 2008

Seeing the (inevitable) light on faith-based prisons and re-entry programs

I have long been intrigued by — and an agnostic supporter of — faith-based prison and re-entry programs, largely because these programs emphasize the rehabilitative needs and potential of criminal offenders when politicians only want to posture about being the toughest on criminals.  Consequently, I found heartening and telling this op-ed in today's New York Times, headlined "The Faith to Outlast Politics."  Here are a few excerpts:

In his State of the Union address Monday evening, President Bush asked Congress to permanently extend the federal laws permitting religious nonprofit organizations to compete for federal grants.  Seven years ago this week, Mr. Bush started his faith-based initiative. He promised to build on these “charitable choice” laws, which were begat by bipartisan compromises between President Bill Clinton and Senator John Ashcroft. “Government cannot be replaced by charities,” Mr. Bush declared, “but it should welcome them as partners, instead of resenting them as rivals.”...

[But over] the past six years, federal grants to faith-based programs have shifted away from the local “armies of compassion” praised by Mr. Bush and toward large, national organizations with religious affiliations.  Every nonpartisan study has concluded that the initiative has not delivered the grants, vouchers, tax incentives and other support for faith-based organizations that the president originally promised.... President Bush has promised much. It will be left to the next president to deliver on those promises.

The good news is that every major presidential candidate seems open to doing just that.  Hillary Clinton has declared that there is no contradiction between “support for faith-based initiatives and upholding our constitutional principles.”  John McCain has supported the idea especially as it relates to improving educational programs for disadvantaged children.  Barack Obama describes faith-based programs as a “uniquely powerful way of solving problems” especially where former prisoners and substance abusers are concerned.  When he was governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney created his own faith-based office.

Politicians from both parties have come to realize that faith-based programs are indispensable even if they are not miraculous.  America’s churches, synagogues, mosques and other congregations supply dozens of major social services — like day care, homeless shelters and anti-violence programs — worth billions of dollars each year, as Ram Cnaan, a professor of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, has proved in several studies. Dr. Cnaan is not even counting the work done by inner-city religious schools and other local faith-based programs.  From coast to coast, the primary beneficiaries of these services are low-income children and families who are not otherwise affiliated with the religious nonprofit organizations that serve them....

Increasingly, governors and mayors, with or without Washington’s help, are on the case.  Since 2001, governors by the dozens and over a hundred mayors have started faith-based initiatives on their own. In numerous places, the initiatives have persisted through changes in administrations and party control — further evidence for the emerging political consensus in favor of using public dollars to support faith-based organizations.  The ideological disputes that infect inside-the-Beltway debates over the separation of church and state have little life in cities where what gets accomplished (or not) in juvenile justice, health care and other social services is a visible, life-and-death drama.

Though not focused specifically on faith-based prison and re-entry programs, this op-ed sheds light on all the different forces that make such programs inevitable in the years ahead.  As this story from NPR spotlights, states from coast-to-coast are facing "looming budget shortfalls" and prison/corrections costs are among the largest budget items for so many states.  Governors and mayors will surely turn to faith-based ports during this economic storm, particularly to provide services to offender populations that won't be able to preserve public funds through the usual political process.  Thus, the faith-based realities here will likely become another manifestation of my new slogan, "It's the prison economy, stupid."

Some related posts on faith-based prison programs:

January 29, 2008 at 07:13 AM | Permalink


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I have carefully read today's NYT Op Ed underscoring another broken promise of the Bush Administration. As state and federal correctional and supervision budgets diminish significantly-- and the only privatization in corrections involves corporations administered by their former "official" cronies-- it comes as no surprise that the exceedingly positive systemic contributions by bona fide faith-based and other community-based inmate support groups is trivialized by the federal government. States, however, have frequently been more innovative, and while the new DOC SEC in FL has a record of strongly supporting faith-based initiatives, one of his predecessor's final official acts was to eliminate in its entirety the Kosher dietary program for observant inmates. These dedicated non-profits bring educational, vocational, and spiritual--frequently non-denominational-- programs to those incarcerated under myriad forms of 'custody' and, moreover, their most critical function, in my view, begins upon an inmate's release by facilitating the radical transition from incarceration to community life, e.g., assisting in the acquisition of housing, employment, social communities, etc. Their funding should be increased and not subject to unfulfillable promises conferring the President only with the mere imprimatur of concern or 'conservative compassion' for the most prominentl of the disenfranchised members of society.

Posted by: benson weintraub | Jan 29, 2008 9:46:50 AM

Should January 2009 have John McCain presiding over such decisions it's unlikely he will deviate from the current Bush administration, John McCain is very much Bush III.

Posted by: No John McCain | Apr 12, 2008 8:21:21 PM

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