Does Faith Have a Place in the Justice System?

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The United States is notoriously ranked as the nation with the largest amount of its population in detainment. An article in the Huffington Post notes that the totals now exceed two million. Also, unfortunately, not all inmates learn from their mistakes after they’ve been locked away. Statistics show that nearly half of former inmates end up getting arrested again within three years of their original release date. So, what can be done about these disturbing trends? Some people believe that faith may be the ingredient that changes the hearts and minds of prisoners for good.

Programs Around the Nation

Prison Fellowship is one program that trains people around the United States to go into prisons and share Christian principles with the people there. It was founded in 1976, and also aims to support inmate’s families, who may also be feeling a sense of loss and misdirection in a loved one’s absence.

Additionally, there’s the aptly-titled Books Behind Bars program which is another Christian-based effort. They work to send packages of books to prisoners. The organization says that people who donate $7.50 each month can provide one book to a prison. They also estimate that a book is equal to about 500 hours of personal evangelism efforts (presumably because the books are shared among multiple inmates, and perhaps discussed later).

The state of Florida operates entire prisons that promote faith-based principles. Officially called Faith-and-Character Based Institutions, these are different than many other options that exist. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Christian faith, they welcome people who hold all types of beliefs. The goals of these types of prisons are numerous and include exercises to help people become upstanding members of society once again, and to discourage them from lapsing into old habits. These efforts are also notable because inmates must volunteer to get transferred into one of these special facilities. Currently, there are over 4,000 prison cells of this kind in Florida, across four buildings.

Religious Groups and Prison Reform

The religious group known as the Quakers actually had a hand in influencing the design of prison cells in the late 17th century. During that time, problems with diseases and overcrowding were extremely common, and a man named Benjamin Rush decided it was time to take action. Over time, the Quakers provided input about the dimensions of newly designed cells, and also proposed the idea of solitary confinement. Their take was that, when people were sitting in a cell away from others, they’d have time to think deeply about the actions that caused them to get into their current situation, and more importantly, how to improve for the future.

Although the National Institute of Corrections currently has data mentioning the presence of faith-based options in some states, it cautions that they are not intended to fill in as the sole source of an inmate’s exposure to religion, and that participants should feel free to supplement their time by studying other faiths if they so choose. Also, opinion is still largely split about how effective faith-based programs are throughout the justice system, although offerings of this type did gain political momentum during the Bush era. It’s never appropriate to push a particular religion upon another American citizen, whether they are free or incarcerated, but if a person is seeking direction and guidance, it just may be found in through a power that’s greater than him or herself.

Kara Martin writes for forensics blogs. If you’re considering a criminal justice career, check out her blog at Hat Tip: Best Criminal Justice.com.

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