Can Faith Communities Act When Politicians Fail to Lead?


In the post-election era, the faith community can play a distinct role in achieving criminal justice reform. This is why Eugene Schneeberg, Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the Department of Justice, stepped into a storefront church in the Bronx recently to address 50 religious volunteers and their families who completed training in re-entry ministry and juvenile crime prevention.

Schneeberg, whose arrival at the Bronx Clergy Criminal Justice Roundtable ceremony was delayed by taxi drivers who refused to take an African American fare to the Bronx, rehearsed the emphases of his office under the Barack Obama Administration: juvenile crime prevention, responsible fatherhood, and successful prisoner re-entry.

He noted the hard work and dedication of those present, and cited the persistence of the group, which has contracts with juvenile probation in both the South Bronx and the Edenwald public housing development.

And like any effective speaker to an audience of faith, he adeptly mixed numbers with narrative and stories with statistics to both paint a realistic picture of the obstacles, and encourage a sense of increased hope that the interventions and strategies of the faith community have and can make a difference.

In a conversation after the graduation, I asked Schneeberg about the lack of criminal justice reform language in the recent presidential election campaigns.

He reminded me that President Obama did address gun control in the second debate, and used his response to the question concerning limiting the availability of assault weapons as an opportunity to call for “a comprehensive strategy” to deal with crime and violence that includes a strong emphasis on education, and partnerships between faith groups and law enforcement.

Going back to look at the transcript, I recognize the Obama remarks to be consistent with the administration’s policies to date. The lack of specifics reflects the debate context, but is exacerbated by the relative silence on the issue in other venues.

That said, I believe the post-election mandate for the faith community should include several components:

Catalysts of Change

More local faith groups like the Bronx Clergy Criminal Justice Roundtable, Philadelphia’s Kingdom Care Reentry Network, and Baltimore’s National Women’s Prison Project are needed to serve as catalysts, organizers and facilitators of work on the group in distressed communities.

National networks such as the Social Justice and Prison Ministry of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which recently devoted an entire floor of its DC headquarters to developing a re-entry center, and The United Methodist Church, with its regional Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries Commissions must mobilize resources at the congregational level, because no neighborhood that struggles with crime and incarceration is without myriad houses of worship in its midst.

Developing New Partnerships

The president’s brief call for partnerships between law enforcement and the faith community ought to inspire both sides to explore existing models and potential strategies for working together. Examples abound, in re-entry and juvenile violence reduction, from Brooklyn’s Youth and Congregations Project to the Ten Point Coalition to Rev. Jeffrey Brown’s Rebuilding Every City Around Peace (RECAP).

With more states becoming Justice Reinvestment Act eligible, support for community based solutions to effectively reduce mass incarceration and provide stronger measures toward rehabilitation, reentry and recidivism reduction beckons the faith community to greater involvement and law enforcement to greater openness to the faith community as an effective partner.

Interestingly, here the “post-election” drama lies not in the presidential position but in state, county and local officials.

To wit, the ability of local and state criminal justice agencies to enter into partnership depends in large measure on those elected to offices such as judge and district attorney, and appointment to boards of probation and parole.

States like Texas, Pennsylvania and California (and their counties) must make good on strategies that emphasize community based solutions, not just solutions using buildings in the community. There is a difference between empowering (paying) large corporate community corrections and rehabilitation centers in a neighborhood with no neighborhood interaction, and identifying evidence based practices in organizations (including faith based institutions) which can play a critical role in crime reduction.

It is not an “either/or”, but a “both/and” strategy that must be employed.

Mobilization for Reform

Faith based organizations such as the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Working Group, Justice Fellowship and denominational offices concerned about criminal justice policy reform must first mobilize congregations at the local level to invest in men, women, children, youth and families impacted by the criminal justice system.

That will enable them to develop traction and momentum in their attempts at policy reform.

Although the national advocacy efforts of these groups have laudably developed support for such policies as The Second Chance Act and sentencing reform, and current efforts concerning fair pricing for prison phone calls show promise, the groundswell for change requires hands on involvement at the basic unit of all faith traditions: the congregation—whether it is based at a church, masjid, temple or synagogue.

The Civil Rights movement serves as an apt example.

Though its aim was policy change, it gained its strength from the hands on involvement of congregations who knew that the policies of segregation and discrimination affected the lives of their memberships. It is virtually statistically impossible for a congregation in America to not be similarly affected in one or more families, especially in those communities that are predominantly Black or Latino.

Without a similar groundswell from the grassroots of the religious community, we may witness elections in 2013 and beyond—sans the glitter of presidential nominees atop the ballots—where the issue of criminal justice reform receives little attention.

And since those elections contain plenty of opportunities to elect district attorneys, governors, mayors, judges, etc., such a silence would be even more costly than the relative silence of 2012.

Harold Dean Trulear is director of Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Initiative, and Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University. He welcomes comments from readers.

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