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Criminal recidivism programs could use same inner change

Promises and reality are sometimes like oil and vinegar, especially when the promises come from the federal government and its beneficiaries.

Take criminal recidivism, which is only one of an infinite number of possible examples of governmental snafus. It was on April 29 that the Department of Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse came out in support of Prison Fellowship Ministries’ “InnerChange” Freedom Initiative program.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Roehrkasse described the program- designed to ease prisoners’ transition from incarceration to freedom- as voluntary and constitutional. He said the inmates who took part would receive “no reduction in their sentence … no better facilities, same food, same privileges and disciplinary rules.”

Such high hopes for the program were short-lived. On June 2, just four months later, the $1.53 million InnerChange had received in funds from the state of Iowa was ordered returned and the program has been given 60 days to cease activity.

Judge Robert W. Pratt, ruling on the case brought by Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that the InnerChange program was “perversely sectarian” and “impermissibly endorses religion.”

Contrary to what Roehrkasse had to say four months earlier, Pratt found that participants in the InnerChange program enjoyed unfair benefits, such as special visitation rights.

Pratt therefore ruled the program unconstitutional due to the prohibition of state-established religion as outlined in the First Amendment. Perhaps the only solace for Prison Fellowship and its InnerChange program is that Pratt stayed his decision pending the outcome of an expected appeals trial. However, if Prison Fellowship Ministries loses on appeal, the verdict will stand, the program will be shut down, and the money returned.

In his decision, Pratt noted that he was making no judgment on the effectiveness of religion-based programs in prisons. It’s a good thing Pratt decided not to comment, as the statistics are contradictory at best. A University of Pennsylvania study found that the InnerChange program’s graduates were 50 percent less likely to be rearrested and 60 percent less likely to be re-imprisoned.

On the other hand, Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, made a case in Slate that the Pennsylvania study “put a happy face on sad results.” Kleiman argues the unadulterated figures show that InnerChange participants do somewhat worse than other prisoners.

“They were slightly more likely to be rearrested and noticeably more likely (24 percent versus 20 percent) to be re-imprisoned,” Kleiman said.

The founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, said, “We’ve been doing this for 10 years and that (the Iowa case) was the first challenge that’s been filed.”

That may be true legally, because in other states (such as Arkansas) InnerChange is not state-funded. Ethically, however, it’s a different story.

It is quite a challenge to Earley’s reputation when his organization takes millions of dollars from the federal government while providing no substantive or provable results. Also quite a challenge is the fact that his organization may have facilitated the federal government in infringing on constitutional liberties and providing special treatment to the prisoners in his state-funded, implicitly religious program. The most egregious charge against Earley, however, is that now that he has failed, the prisoners he endeavored to help may be left with no help at all.

Earley is not the only one at fault here, of course. Months of time and millions of dollars later, faith-based programs, like most federal programs in general, have not resulted in progress commensurate to their funding. The federal government bears as much responsibility as Earley, if not more, for its failure to address the problems of prisoners and prevent recidivism.

Instead of faith-based initiatives, maybe there should be person-based initiatives. For instance, instead of telling prisoners that the reward for their good behavior upon release from prison will be enjoyed in the afterlife, perhaps they could be told that their hard work will be rewarded in this lifetime with enhanced self-esteem brought about by hard work and earned material reward.

Instead of being told that a religious higher power commands them to behave, perhaps prisoners should be told that they owe it to themselves to behave. At the very least, this would appeal to the already self-centered mindset of most criminals and avoid constitutional issues in the courts. Such a program might even achieve better results than the ones that continue to receive funding.

Beating the performance achievements set by Earley and the government, after all, would not be so difficult.

Jordan Capobianco is a senior majoring in English literature.