Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Charitable Choice Behind Bars

Jack Boeve


February 12, 2001

The flashbulbs are popping again in the eyes of John DiIulio, Jr., the University of Pennsylvania professor tapped to direct the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Not everyone is smiling, though, as DiIulio's critics express concern over his appointment. Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute is among them (The Washington Post, 2/5/01). Schiraldi criticizes DiIulio for his earlier studies and statements on crime and punishment that have been the focus of criminal justice policy debates for the past decade and do not now seem to square with DiIulio's more recent optimism and work with urban communities and churches.

With rising populations of the incarcerated, particularly from the African-American community, the 90s saw a shift in focus and funding to large-scale prison construction, a "tough-on-crime" attitude, and policies designed to fight what DiIulio termed "superpredators" threatening to overrun America. The same decade, though, actually saw crime rates drop, and the dire predictions, gratefully, did not come to pass. DiIulio has since revisited his earlier pronouncements and has called for reform of the criminal justice system. Indicative of the need for reform are: large, racially disproportionate prison populations; sentences not matching crimes; little effort to rehabilitate or prepare prisoners for reentry into society; and renewed debate over capital punishment.

President Bush, as well, in his inaugural address, alluded to the need for change as he spoke of four themes—civility, courage, compassion, and character—toward which his administration would work to "affirm a new commitment to live out our nation's promise." Regarding compassion, he stated that "the proliferation of prisons, however necessary, is no substitute for hope and order in our souls." The responsibility for delivering that hope and compassion jointly rests upon the shoulders of government and citizens, and he recognized the role of "church and charity, synagogue and mosque" in that task.

What can this administration and new office, alongside legislators, justices, and the academic, policy, and criminal justice communities, do to reform the system and to "[build] communities of service and a nation of character"?

Justice and reform require not only retribution—punishment appropriate to the crime—but also restoration—the preservation and recovery of shalom within communities. Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) believes that restorative justice demands restitution by offenders to their victims and requires the cooperation of government, victims, offenders, and communities. Restorative justice addresses not only the needs of victims and communities, but also those of offenders and their families. Justice requires government to exercise its proper role to secure public order, hold offenders accountable, ensure restitution, and restore peace.

With Charitable Choice in the ascendancy, PFM reports that state departments of corrections are seeking ways to work with faith-based groups to rehabilitate prisoners and assist in their successful transition into society. We should encourage and expand such programs. Moreover, government needs to establish creative, effective programs to reduce prison overcrowding by the nonviolent. Funds currently going to prison construction could be funneled into community programs achieving true change, which in turn will make room for the dangerous and violent to serve their full sentences.

DiIulio has signaled his confidence in faith-based and community groups to heal social ills. Wedding his expertise in criminal justice to his commitment to faith-based initiatives, he should be an agent for reform of our criminal justice system. The Bush administration must seize this opportunity to make sure the battles for reform on both fronts mutually reenforce each other.

—Jack Boeve, Assistant Development Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”