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Byron Johnson: Overcoming the obstacles to faith-based approaches to crime

By Byron Johnson

Published: Sunday, Aug. 7 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

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Prejudices of secular and religious groups alike stand in the way of successful crime reduction efforts.

We now have data confirming what objective and open-minded observers already knew: that religious commitment and faith-based approaches, as well as the transformative power of faith itself, can be central in reducing crime.

We also know that intentional partnerships between communities of faith and law enforcement can lead to dramatic improvement in police-community relations and subsequent reductions in youth violence and gang activity.

The story of what would eventually be called the "Boston Miracle" symbolizes what can happen when concerned congregations and clergy unite to forge long-term and reciprocal partnerships with police and other public agencies in addressing youth violence.

In 1990, after youth homicides had hit an all-time high in the greater Boston area, a group of African-American ministers partnered with government agencies and other community-based groups to respond to the violence and gang activity. Youth homicides not only decreased, but for some 18 months, there were no youth homicides in Boston.

Today, more than a decade later, this partnership remains strong and active. Rev. Jeffrey Brown, one of the early leaders of this collaboration, left his role as pastor to pursue this cause full-time. He is now the executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, whose mission is to mobilize the community on behalf of a primarily African-American and Latino population at high risk for violence, drug abuse and other destructive behavior.

We also know that congregants attending churches, especially inner-city churches, will respond to requests to mentor the most at-risk group in America — children of prisoners. Dr. Wilson Goode, the former mayor of Philadelphia, and now himself a Reverend, started an effort in Philadelphia to recruit mentors for children who have an incarcerated parent.

The program, Amachi, takes its name from a Nigerian Ibo word that means "who knows but what God has brought us through this child." Goode's simple pitch from the pulpit of largely black churches goes something like this: "Would you be willing to invest an hour of your week in the life of a child who needs the influence of a caring adult?" The answer to this pitch has been a resounding "Amen."

There are currently some 250 programs for the mentoring of prisoners' children in 48 states, a partnership with more than 6,000 churches that has served at least 100,000 children. What started as a Philadelphia experiment with inner-city churches has become a national mentoring movement.

Faith-based programs also help prisoners themselves. We now have preliminary research that provides insight as to how faith-based programs can be a powerful antidote in counteracting the debilitating prison culture found in so many of our prisons. Stated differently, we are seeing important glimpses of how faith-based programs can help change the prison environment from a laboratory for learning even more deviant behavior to a place where spiritual transformation as well as rehabilitation can become realistic prospects.

Faith-based prison programs that incorporate education and mentoring are largely driven by volunteers and represent the most comprehensive programs available to prisoners. We have initial evidence that the faith factor is linked to inmate adjustment and to reductions in the likelihood of arrest following release from prison.

Although we certainly need more research on each of these issues, the next big question to address is this: can networks of faith-motivated volunteers, mentors and programs provide both the support and supervision necessary not only to help prisoners behind bars, but also to help former prisoners stay crime-free by leading moral and productive lives following release from prison?

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