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.
"I'm not against the goals of this bill. But you are crossing the line (constitutionally).”
Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City
‘Crossing the line'Opponents of the bill say it is unconstitutional and represents a violation of the separation of church and state. Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City, said he supports churches getting involved in prison ministries. But they should pay for those programs with their own money, not public funds, he said. The legislation forms a council to review state re-entry policies and a task force to seek out programs that have potential to reduce the number of criminal reoffenders in Oklahoma. Oversight over the Corrections Department and its programs is the job of the Legislature, not an appointed council or task force, said Rep. Richard Morrissette. The bill creates more government and bureaucracy, he said. "I'm not against the goals of this bill,” said Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. "But you are crossing the line (constitutionally).” The bill, which was part of the Republican agenda this year, passed the House with a vote of 93-4 and returns to the Senate. Lawmakers have until Friday to send legislation to the governor to become law. • ON NEWSOK.COM: Is it appropriate for the state to give funds to faith-based groups for this purpose? Tell us what you think.
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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.