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Faith By The Numbers 

Will prayer revive prisoner rehabilitation?

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana prison system under continuous state control. President George W. Bush's emphasis on faith-based social services has spurred a new policy debate over prisoner rehabilitation, redemption and forgiveness.

Such topics have long been the purview of liberals deemed "soft" on crime. Amid federal funding pledges in the Bush era of compassionate conservatism and faith-based reforms, conservative Christians and other proselytizing faiths are expanding definitions of "rehabilitation" to include the victims, as clergy members seek to convert the murderers among us.

Unlike previous rehabilitation efforts centered on inmates, Louisiana prison ministries are crafting programs for violent offenders to offer written apologies to their victims' loved ones. There is no benefit to the inmate other than the act of contrition itself. The goal: to help victims or their families to move on with their lives.

Should the federal government help pay for such programs?

The American Civil Liberties Union has already objected generally to federal support for "faith-based" social services. The ACLU argues such funding will weaken the division of church and state. And some clergy members fear that competitive proselytizing or government restrictions on funding will be detrimental to their role as social service providers.

Meanwhile, some who might not otherwise be in the Bush camp say the president's faith-based program offers hope that rehabilitation may be restored as a politically acceptable response to crime -- efforts all but abandoned since the '70s.

"[A]s a card-carrying liberal, I suggest we should not be so quick to attack Bush," wrote David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and legal affairs correspondent for The Nation, in a guest editorial in The New York Times earlier this year. "Faith-based programs emphasize treatment, education, rehabilitation and reintegration into society, rather than incarceration. Our per capita incarceration rate has increased by 500 percent since the early 1970s, and at 700 for every 100,000 residents it is now the highest in the world."

Actually, Louisiana leads the world, surpassing all states with an incarceration rate of 776 per 100,000 per capita. We rank second only to Texas in executions. There were 35,000 state convicts in Louisiana prisons and parish jails by the end of last year, according to the state Department of Corrections. There were an additional 36,300 probationers and 22,395 parolees under state supervision -- but only three from Angola last year. Of the 5,180 inmates at Louisiana's only maximum-security prison, 63 percent (including 91 death row prisoners or 1 percent) are lifers who are not eligible for parole, probation or suspension of sentence. That figure is up from 49 percent just two years ago.

The state corrections department budget for fiscal year 2000-2001 topped more than half a billion dollars, including $85.7 million for Angola alone. Victims' rights groups generally accept such costs as the price of freedom from rampaging crime. But lawmakers are looking to fund teacher pay and education during a creeping recession. Crime-wary politicians might be willing to consider aging and rehabilitated convicts for release and fiscal relief, if faith-based groups can help lead the way.

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