Faith’s role in crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By By­ron R. John­son By­ron R. John­son (By­ron_John­son@bay­ is dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of the so­cial sci­ences at Bay­lor Univer­sity and co-au­thor of “The An­gola Prison Sem­i­nary: Ef­fects of Faith-Based Min­istry on Iden­tity Trans­for­ma­tion, De­sis­tance, an

Ad­vo­cates for crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form now count among their ranks a very di­verse group of lead­ers. De­ci­sion-mak­ers from the po­lit­i­cal left, right, and cen­ter agree we need to re­visit a host of is­sues that con­tinue to trou­ble the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. These in­clude dra­matic in­creases in drug use among teens, prison over­crowd­ing, high re­cidi­vism rates and vi­o­lent crime in cities like Bal­ti­more and Chicago.

These and other crime prob­lems are ex­ac­er­bated by shrink­ing bud­gets. But re­cent re­search is pro­vid­ing ev­i­dence of sev­eral cost-ef­fec­tive ap­proaches to crim­i­nal jus­tice is­sues that should be given se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion by pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

We­knowado­les­cent ad­dic­tion is a ma­jor pub­lic health prob­lem. The over­abun­dance of pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tions, easy ac­cess to harder street drugs and the in­creas­ing use of mar­i­juana make it eas­ier than ever be­fore for youth to use con­trolled sub­stances. Such drug use — in­clud­ing al­co­hol con­sump­tion — cur­tails youth brain de­vel­op­ment; hin­ders aca­demic per­for­mance; in­creases the risk and spread of in­fec­tious dis­ease, in­juries, and vi­o­lence; con­trib­utes to risky sex and teenage preg­nancy; and neg­a­tively af­fects life-course tra­jec­to­ries. In­creased crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, higher health care costs, and lost pro­duc­tiv­ity are all byprod­ucts of such sub­stance use. And the re­sult­ing cost to so­ci­ety is as much as $500 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

In sev­eral new publi­ca­tions, my coau­thors and I looked into the re­la­tion­ships be­tween so­cial iso­la­tion and giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing so­cial sup­port in Al­co­holics Anony­mous dur­ing treat­ment and at post­treat­ment out­comes for ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers. We also ex­am­ined the re­la­tion­ships among a spe­cific com­bi­na­tion of “spir­i­tual virtues” (help­ing oth­ers and the ex­pe­ri­ence of divine love) and out­comes re­lated to crim­i­nal in­volve­ment, so­bri­ety and charac- ter de­vel­op­ment among ado­les­cents. We as­sessed 195 ado­les­cents with sub­stance de­pen­dency court-re­ferred to res­i­den­tial treat­ment at in­take, dis­charge and six months post-treat­ment. We found that higher lev­els of ser­vice to oth­ers and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing divine love were linked to re­duced re­cidi­vism, re­duced re­lapse and greater char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment. In ad­di­tion, be­ing con­nected to oth­ers — es­pe­cially serv­ing oth­ers — coun­ters the so­cial iso­la­tion that of­ten drives ad­dic­tion. In essence, we found that greater at­ten­tion to spir­i­tual virtues of faith and ser­vice im­proves treat­ment for youth in­volved with al­co­hol, drugs and cer­tain forms of crime, and it does so at no cost to tax­pay­ers.

Sec­ond, many pris­ons in Amer­ica re­main crowded, yet re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams are of­ten viewed as too ex­pen­sive for al­ready over­bur­dened cor­rec­tional bud­gets. What are we to do? The Louisiana State Pen­i­ten­tiary (a.k.a. An­gola) is Amer­ica’s largest max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison, cur­rently hous­ing over 6,300 in­mates in five sep­a­rate com­plexes spread over 18,000 acres of a work­ing prison farm.

For decades An­gola was re­garded as one of the most vi­o­lent pris­ons in Amer­ica. In 1995, An­gola would be­come known for some­thing far dif­fer­ent: the es­tab­lish­ment of a sem­i­nary pro­gram be­hind bars. Ini­ti­ated by war­den Burl Cain, the An­gola Bi­ble Col­lege, which is pri­vately funded, fo­cuses pri­mar­ily on en­rolling “lif­ers.” A life sen­tence in Louisiana means nat­u­ral life, with­out pa­role. More than 90 per­cent of the in­mates sen­tenced to An­gola will die there. The four-year pro­gram re­sem­bles the tra­di­tional sem­i­nary cur­ricu­lum, and grad­u­ates of the sem­i­nary be­come prac­ti­tion­ers in An­gola’s unique In­mate Min­is­ter pro­gram. These In­mate Min­is­ters ap­ply their ed­u­ca­tion in ser­vice to their fel­low in­mates through An­gola’s 29 in­mate-led con­gre­ga­tions.

Our re­search team spent over three years con­duct­ing in­ter­views and ad­mi­nis- ter­ing sur­veys, months on site car­ry­ing out ob­ser­va­tional field­work. We dis­cov­ered a prison far dif­fer­ent from the no­to­ri­ous la­bel of “Amer­ica’s Blood­i­est Prison” it held for so many years. In­stead, we found a unique and vi­brant in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the prom­i­nent prison sem­i­nary and pre-ex­ist­ing, in­mate-led con­gre­ga­tions.

Our re­search, pub­lished in a book last month, doc­u­ments how var­i­ous faith­based ef­forts — from hospice to grief coun­sel­ing — bring light to this max­i­mum se­cu­rity prison. Many pris­on­ers, most serv­ing life sen­tences, are able to find mean­ing, iden­tity and re­demp­tion. By em­brac­ing re­li­gion and be­ing af­forded the op­por­tu­nity to choose a bet­ter self, many An­gola in­mates trans­form their lives, come to care about oth­ers, and dis­play their other-minded hu­man­ity on a daily ba­sis. Many ob­servers be­lieve “noth­ing works” when it comes to pris­oner re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, but our re­search in­di­cates the op­po­site.

In­mate min­is­ters as­sist oth­ers in find­ing mean­ing and pur­pose. These net­works of sup­port and ac­tiv­i­ties cre­ate an in­sti­tu­tional cli­mate that man­ages to push back against the de­hu­man­iz­ing con­di­tions that char­ac­ter­ized An­gola for many decades. Once known as the most vi­o­lent prison in Amer­ica, An­gola has be­come an un­likely des­ti­na­tion for del­e­ga­tions in­ter­ested in in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions to prison crowd­ing and of­fender treat­ment. As a re­sult, prison sem­i­nar­ies now ex­ist in over a dozen states, and more are in de­vel­op­ment. It re­mains to be seen whether, as some have pre­dicted, this pri­vately funded in­no­va­tion will be­come a full-fledged cor­rec­tional move­ment.

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