Editorial: Revisiting the ‘faith-based’ debate

It’s a phrase that at first blush appears politically poisonous: “faith-based.”

Former provincial Tory leader John Tory could vouch for that sentiment, of course. His proposal for public funding for religious schools sank his chances of winning the 2007 election, an issue he’ll certainly steer clear of as he gets ready to mount a likely bid to become Toronto’s next mayor.

But now, the idea has resurfaced within the justice system. In Manitoba, the province is in talks with a Christian organization to set up a faith-based prison unit in a planned new jail, CanWest News Service reported last week. It would mirror programs in other countries, particularly the United States, where prisoners voluntarily enter into units providing a Christian perspective in a bid to reduce recidivism.

The idea is that such values-based programming will help offenders reform. It’s a reasonable claim, one that research backs up to some extent. Certainly, the idea of providing alternative types of rehabilitation in our already stretched prison system is a good thing.

The organization advocating for the unit, Prison Fellowship Canada, says it would like to replicate the proposal at facilities across the country. But the idea raises a few concerns, especially given the ferocious controversy over the schools issue in Ontario.

On its face, for example, it appears to challenge the principle of keeping religion out of our public institutions. At the same time, it raises questions over equity, particularly since in U.S. facilities that have implemented such programming, prisoners reportedly receive different treatment than their counterparts in other units.

Similarly, other faith groups are likely to complain that they, too, should be able to introduce their own programs in jails. In addition, the proposal comes at a time when our prisons are already struggling to provide sufficient rehabilitation programming to inmates, a challenge that will grow as the government’s tough new crime laws put more people in the system for longer periods of time. So while new, and potentially better, services are welcome, they shouldn’t detract from the need to help rehabilitate inmates who don’t join the Christian unit.

Besides the philosophical questions, then, the issue comes down largely to implementation. With the Manitoba proposal, it’s positive that it involves only a unit and not an entire prison dedicated to Christian programming. But should the government there implement it, it should remain a pilot program until we see results. It should also make sure to address the equity concerns people are sure to raise.

Overall, the idea is worth considering. But as Canada likely gets set to see growth in its prison population, officials should be mindful of their responsibilities for everyone in our jails. Any bid to improve programming through proposals such as the Christian unit shouldn’t stand in isolation. We need to ensure prisons provide meaningful rehabilitation to all inmates.
- Glenn Kauth

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