Posts tagged with: recidivism

America has a lot big problems—and we American’s like them to have one big cause. We also prefer that they have one big solution (preferably fixable by our big government). Take, for example, violent crime. Since 1992, the population increased from 255 million to 310 million but the violent crime rate fell from 757.7 per to 386.3 per 100,000 people. While in 1994 more than half of Americans considered crime to be the nation’s most important problem, only 2 percent believed that in 2012.

prison-ministryNo one knows exactly why the crime rate dropped so precipitously, though numerous experts have their pet theories. Penologists credit increases in incarceration while police say it’s community policing. Others say it’s due to increases in abortion or reductions in lead in gasoline. All of these factors may have played a role, but one consideration that is often overlooked is the role of religion.

For instance, as H. David Schuringa points out,

(more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 16, 2007

Today’s Detroit News ran a brief letter to the editor in response to my Jan. 23 op-ed, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” (Joe Knippenberg engaged a previous response on his blog here).

David Dery of Central Lake writes, “Jordan Ballor’s article encouraging religious groups in prisons is fine, as far as he goes…. The problem comes when the state attaches some benefit to attending these programs without providing a non-religious alternative.”

In response I’ll simply make a few observations and raise a few questions. I agree that the state “attaching some benefit” to a program like IFI is potentially problematic, although the nature of the benefit would probably need to be more clearly defined (are we talking material benefits? social?). What if this benefit is not attached by the state but inheres to the nature of the program itself (i.e. spiritual)?

I also think there is not only a question of a religious vs. non-religious/secular alternative to be considered, but Christian vs. other religions (Islam, paganism, Buddhism, et al.) That is, if the government allows a Christian program into prisons, must it also provide a non-Christian religious alternative? What if there are no groups who are doing religious reform work in prisons from these groups?

Here’s a tentative alternative proposition: if the state allows a Christian group to do reform work in the prison, it must allow (not necessarily provide itself) other groups, whether religious or secular, to do reform work under the same conditions and standards as the Christian group. But the state need not necessarily seek out or artificially create Buddhist, pagan, Islamic, or secularist groups to do the reform work.

The fact that Christian groups are perhaps the most active in this area says something about the nature of the Christian faith and its expression.

IFI’s appeal of the decision in Iowa began this week. Joe Knippenberg gives some good introductory links and IFI’s ruling page gives information on how to listen to the oral arguments.

The Detroit News ran my commentary from the end of last year on the role of religion and prisoner reform today, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” The version that ran today omits the references to Jeremy Bentham, which you can get from the original and this related blog post.

In related news, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley reports today that the “Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has set February 13, 2007, for oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling against Prison Fellowship and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).” The appeal will be argued in St. Louis, MO and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be part of the three judge panel.

Get more information about the case at the IFI Ruling web page.

In this week’s Acton commentary, I reflect on the past year’s developments for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. In June a federal judge in Iowa ruled against IFI’s work at Iowa’s Newton facility. In his ruling (PDF here), the judge wrote that the responsibility for combating recidivism is “traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state.” This means that since reducing recidivism is a “state function,” anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a “state actor.”

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

I contrast the judge’s perspective with that of IFI and other advocates of the importance of civil society, using the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to highlight their differences. Bentham too thought that reform was the task of the government. He argued for the construction of prisons along the model of his “panopticon,” literally meaning “all seeing,” where the extreme use of constant surveillance and individual sequestration would break down the anti-social behaviors of convicted criminals. It was a rather unintuitive program, to say the least, but an influential one nonetheless.

Bentham thought so little of religious practice in fact, that he thought communal worship would destroy his isolationist agenda. In other types of prison facilities prisoner solitude would necessarily be disturbed when prisoners were given “the benefits of attendance on Divine service.”

Under Bentham’s plan, however, prisoners “might receive these benefits, in every circumstance, without stirring from their cells. No thronging nor jostling in the way between the scene of work and the scene destined to devotion; no quarellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.” The communal aspects of worship could thus be entirely dispensed with while placating the necessities of religious adherence.

All of these events effecting IFI’s work occurred in a year that saw a sharp increase in violent crime. For more on the broader picture of the year’s legal developments for faith-based work, see this year’s “The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The report includes a section devoted to IFI’s case.

And as a recent article in the NYT magazine observes, there is a growing political coalition on the topic of prison reform. Chris Suellentrop writes with regard to a specific piece of legislation that almost passed in the last congressional session, but may be brought up again in the future, “If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

Read the entire commentary here.