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Religion | Inmates need hope plus opportunity; faith-based prison program helps with both

Issue: "Street warfare," April 7, 2007

Skeptics of the faith-based initiative have long questioned the evidence that faith-based prison ministry really works. Are the stories of success mere accidents? Or do the anecdotes indicate measurable progress in the fight against federal recidivism rates?

At a White House-sponsored roundtable late last month, Fred Davie of Public/Private Ventures announced the results of the Ready4Work program: Prisoners who participated in the faith-based reentry program are 45 percent less likely to return to prison within six months of release and 30 percent less likely to return to prison after a year. After three years of operation at 17 sites, Davie declared the results "preliminary, but very promising."

Speaking in the Eisenhower Executive Office building, across a lush lawn from the White House itself, Davie reminded his audience that hundreds of prisoners sit in D.C. jail cells only a few subway stops away. According to Department of Justice benchmarks, the prospects for prisoners who complete their sentences remain grim. Federal and state prisons release some 650,000 offenders annually. By year three, 60 percent of those offenders will be charged with new crimes, and 40 percent will be back behind bars.

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Since convicted felons are no longer entitled to vote, the growing community of ex-offenders leverages little to no political clout. But after President Bush spotlighted prisoner reentry in his 2004 State of the Union address, the Ready4Work pilot program received $22.5 million in grant money to assist faith-based and community programs that help ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

Working in cities like Jacksonville, Memphis, and Philadelphia, Ready4Work did not shy away from hardened segments of the prison population. The program focused on nonviolent felony offenders-mostly those convicted of drug crimes-who have the highest recidivism rates of any subset within the prison system. At an average age of 26, half of the 4,482 Ready4Work participants had been arrested more than five times.

Davie credits his success in eroding those recidivism statistics to the emotional and practical support offered by the mentoring component of the Ready4Work program. He stressed that-in contrast to the demographics of similar programs-85 percent of the Ready4Work volunteer mentors are African-American.

"To what do we attribute that? Well, we attribute it to pastors and their congregations," said Davie, who holds a Yale divinity degree. "As a result, we have a mentoring program unlike any other in the country."

In a nod to the Establishment Clause stickiness that so often generates controversy-and lawsuits, in the case of Prison Fellowship's InnerChange program (see "Handcuffing prisons," Aug. 12, 2006)-for faith-based prison ministries, Davie was quick to clarify that Ready4Work mentors are trained to understand church/state prohibitions. "Faith became a motivator for mentoring, not a means for mentoring," he said.

Beyond training and organizing mentors, Ready4Work tackles the all-important task of helping ex-offenders find jobs. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao also addressed the roundtable audience, emphasizing the challenges of prisoner reentry from the perspective of the labor market. "Our economy is creating jobs faster than we can measure them," she said, noting that the current unemployment rate of 4.5 percent is lower than the average of the 1990s. "Skilled trade workers are at a premium."

After participating in career development classes, 60 percent of Ready4Work participants got jobs, and one-third of those were still employed six months later. "This may not sound like much," Davie acknowledged, until you consider that most ex-offenders have never held a job, and that most prospective employers are wary of hiring convicted felons.

The roundtable ended with a panel that included Doug Burris, a Missouri probation officer who professed himself a reluctant participant in the faith-based initiative movement. "I thought, 'What are we getting into?'" he said. "I wondered whether people will be going out to kiss snakes."

But after seeing the impact of faith-based prison ministry in crime-ridden St. Louis, Burris changed his mind. "I used to think that opportunity equaled success," he said. "What the faith community has taught me is that it takes hope plus opportunity to equal success."

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