By Stan Diel
Religion News Service
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Gov. Bob Riley on Tuesday (May 20) asked Alabama churches to shoulder the burden of caring for newly released inmates, saying the state lacks the flexibility and funds to help them successfully re-enter society.
Leaders from churches and charitable groups were asked to provide a wide range of services to former inmates, including employment assistance, housing, clothing, health care and cash.
Riley said the state's churches can rise to the challenge just as they do in response to natural disasters such as hurricanes.
"If we can motivate the faith-based community in the state the way we do during an emergency, then we can make a difference," Riley said to a group of about 500 people, mostly religious leaders.
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Bill Johnson, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, said the state releases 11,000 inmates a year and isn't capable of providing the services necessary to help them readjust. Even if the state had the funds, such programs aren't popular with taxpayers, he said.
The state will provide no direct funds to the program, called the Community Partnership for Recovery and Re-entry, but will coordinate the efforts of the churches and other volunteer groups.
"We're admitting we can't solve the problem," Johnson said.
At a meeting that vacillated between policy seminar and revival, Deborah Daniels, state director of the Prison Fellowship Ministry, drew a chorus of "amens" when she said faith is a necessary component of rehabilitation.
"We allowed government to come in and take over what God's people are supposed to do," she said. "We talk about crime. But crime is sin. Apart from God, every child is troubled."
Vickie Locke, director of the new state program, told potential participants that they have an advantage operating outside of government. If a church wants to buy a car for a newly released inmate who lacks transportation, it can do so, she said. Government has to provide cookie-cutter solutions to sometimes complex problems.
In a written program overview distributed to religious leaders, the state suggested 80 ways churches can help, including everything from financial counseling to cash for emergencies. They also could mentor former inmates, provide day care for their children and help them write resumes.
Alex Luchenitser, senior attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it's too soon to know whether the program will raise constitutional issues. But if the state government's involvement with the program ends with referring inmates to churches, then it likely would pass constitutional muster.
"There's certainly nothing wrong with religious charities providing care for inmates and recently released inmates," he said.