By Jennifer Mock Published: May 23, 2007
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More than a quarter of Oklahoma criminals released from prison return within three years, but a bill passed out of the House on Tuesday seeks to lower that rate.

However, critics of the bill say it will funnel public money to church organizations running prison programs — a violation, they say, of the U.S. Constitution.

The legislation would encourage faith-based and other volunteer organizations to get involved in prisoners' lives, whether that means helping them find a job upon release or teaching them parenting skills while in prison; $100,000 has been allotted in the fiscal year 2008 budget to help these groups reduce Oklahoma's recidivism rate.

House Speaker Lance Cargill, author of the legislation, said House Bill 2101 fights the causes of crime and will help criminals make a smooth transition back into society.

"People in prison need people,” said Cargill, R-Harrah. "A government program doesn't love anybody. Government can't love people; people love people.”

While the bill seeks to lower the number of repeat offenders in the state's prisons, Oklahoma has had some success in this area. Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said about 26 percent of Oklahoma criminals return to prison within three years. That figure is among the five-lowest in the country, he said.

‘Crossing the line'
Opponents of the bill say it is unconstitutional and represents a violation of the separation of church and state.

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House Bill 2101 would ...
•Create a Re-entry Policy Council, which will provide oversight of the re-entry policies and programs at the Corrections Department.

•Create the Transformational Justice Interagency Task Force, which will establish goals for reducing Oklahoma's recidivism rate.

•Encourage parenting classes before releasing inmates with children.

•Ensure state prisons establish partnerships with faith-based and community groups to provide services.

•Coordinate programs to help inmates find jobs, housing, substance abuse treatment, medical care and mental health services after release.

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