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April 30, 2006

A thoughtful, but disappointing, attack on a faith-based prison program

Marty Lederman over at Balkinization has this thoughtful post about an initiative, entitled Life Connections, open to "adult volunteer inmates" in five federal prisons designed to provide a "residential multi-faith restorative justice program."  In his post, Marty details at great length why he considers Life Connections to be a "blatantly unconstitutional federal religion-in-prisons program."

Because I am not expert in the Establishment Clause, others will have to analyze Marty's constitutional assertions.  Instead, I want to rail against excessive concern about faith-based prison programs. 

Considering all the other problems with our sentencing and corrections system — from reliance on acquitted conduct and civil burdens of proof to enhance sentences, to prison populations increasing 500% over the last 25 years, to racial disparities in so many areas, to nearly 150,000 persons now serving life sentences, to supermax prisons that inflict a kind of psychological torture — I hope reform advocates will not be excessively concerned with a program that seeks to "reduce recidivism and bring reconciliation to victim, community and inmate through personal transformation using the participant's faith commitment."

Put simply, even if Life Connections might bring a bit too much religion to federal prisons, I see so many  much, much bigger sentencing and corrections problems that merit much, much more attention.

April 30, 2006 at 08:39 PM | Permalink


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Nothing ever merits more attention than the First Amendment. Not even the rest of the Bill of Rights.

Posted by: KipEsquire | Apr 30, 2006 10:19:19 PM

Professor -

I think there are many more vexed issues facing society than the problems with our correctional facilities -- e.g., starvation, needless wars, poverty. Why are you wasting your time focusing in on the small problems?

Posted by: Bobbie | Apr 30, 2006 11:11:56 PM

Thanks for the link, Doug. But what makes my concern "excessive"? I never claimed, nor would I, that it's the most important issue facing the criminal justice system -- although it might just be the most clearly unconstitutional recent initiative. As a general matter, I don't write, or blog, on policy debates in criminal justice; that's simply not my area of expertise or special interest. I write about constitutional law, for the most part -- and First Amendment law, in particular -- because it's among the things that I both care about *and know something about.*

I don't generally review closely all the prison-reform stories in the press and choose those I wish to blog about. But I do keep tabs on Religion Clause stories, and occasionally blog about those. E.g., http://balkin.blogspot.com/2005/06/government-funding-of-religious.html. I don't entertain any pretense that my blogposts are about the most important issues facing us -- Torture's important, for instance, but not as important as the Iraq War, about which I rarely post. I merely try to highlight those stories where I hope I can add some modest value to the public debate. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Apr 30, 2006 11:52:49 PM

Marty, these are all fair points, and Bobbie's comments highlights that I, too, may be guilty of giving particular attention to only those issues/problems that are in my area of expertise.

I guess what triggered my comments is seeing such a detailed and powerful attack on what is intended to be a progressive prison program simply because religion is involved. There are so many regressive aspects of modern penal policy --- many aspects of which implicate First Amendment and other core constitutional concerns --- that do not get subject to such scrutiny. (I have supermax prisons in mind, but lots of other examples could be given, too.)

These sorts of detailed and sustained critiques of progessive programs just because religion is involved leads me sometimes to worry that critics of the left may beon to something when they accuse the left of simply being anti-religion.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 1, 2006 6:46:37 AM

Correcting the problems facing society; starvation, needless wars, poverty and crime, are admirable goals, but far exceed Bobbies or the Professors individual abilities or even the pervasive reach of all the world religions. A goal that each person could accomplish is to change the way one person thinks or lives, if you can do that for just one person in a lifetime, then you have done much more than most. Each criminal, at some point began to think irrationally and decided that he could do what he wanted, whether it be drugs, fraud, robbery or murder. Bobbie, if you could change the way one of these convicts thinks, then you would have began to change the world. I am not an advocate of religion, AA, NA or any particular program in or out of prison, where I spent more than 15 years, but I am an advocate of individualized change. There is not a single program that fits all and some will never fit in, but to change a single individual one must first change the way he thinks. I advocate education as a means of changing prisoners, but you can only teach those willing to learn. Inmate volunteers lead many recognized and unrecognized groups, religious and educational, while I agree with Marty Lederman that imposing religion through the state is unconstitutional, allowing inmate volunteers to teach religion, law, science or math; violates no Amendment, in fact is a right of the First Amendment the freedom of speech. Vexing problems in our society are correctable, if each person who is able would help just one other person in need of food, clothes, housing or a thinking adjustment then you have done your part in changing the world.

Posted by: Barry Ward | May 1, 2006 9:06:54 AM

KipEsquire is more concerned about this governmental program than he is about having troops quartered in his house during peacetime? He's more concerned about it than police searches of his residence without a warrant or probable cause? Talk about a messed up sense of priorities. KipEsquire simply a reflexive First Amendment absolutist who, apparently, hasn't even thought about what the rest of the Bill of Rights is all about.

Absolutism in First Amendment issues shows a lack of reasoned judgment that should be beneath someone who makes a point of calling himself "Esquire." All First Amendment issues require balancing. There are no bright lines. And the effort of First Amendment absolutists, particularly attorneys, weakens the First Amendment. Hysteria like that evinced by KipEsquire will mean the end, not the beginning, of the First Amendment.


Posted by: Mark | May 1, 2006 2:50:03 PM

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