Faith Based Programs for Offender Reentry


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Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host Leonard Sipes.  Ladies and gentlemen the issue for today’s program is faith-based partnerships.  It is amazing as to how many people all throughout this country how many congregations are involved in helping people caught up in the criminal justice system.  And the amazing success that they’ve had to talk about this issue.  We have today Eugene Schneeberg from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  It’s also part of a White House initiative,  Eugene, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Thanks so much for having us back, Len.

Len Sipes:  Eugene, it’s really exciting because we just recently did a radio show … and oh, by the way ladies and gentlemen the reason why Eugene is late today is because he had a meeting at the White House.  So you don’t get that excuse all that often except in Washington, DC — “Oh, I’m sorry I’ll be late for the radio show today because I have to go to the White House.”  Give me a sense as to what faith-based initiatives are as they apply to people caught up in the criminal justice system.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Sure.  Well I would say that faith-based organizations play a critical role in cities and towns, municipalities all throughout the country as key partners with law enforcement because of their long standing in communities, the sense of credibility that churches, synagogues and mosques have throughout the country.  They’re places where people can go when they’re in need of help.  And so for decades faith-based organizations have been really involved in helping prisoners transition back successfully from incarceration, helping them with real practical needs, whether it was clothing, food, shelter, counseling.  The houses of worship often times function as places where people can go when they need help.

Len Sipes:  Moral authority, I think that for me is a key issue here because in the criminal justice system who has the moral authority?  Both of us I think would pretty much agree that society polices itself.  It’s not necessarily the criminal justice system that works; it is the moral authority of the larger society.  To me nobody carries more moral authority in larger society than faith-based institutions.  So if anybody’s going to have the authority to say, “Hey, you should be doing this.  You shouldn’t be doing that.”  It would be the churches, mosques and synagogues.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Yeah.  I would agree with you.  And additionally, Len, I just would add that many religious organizations have spun off parachurch organizations which are essentially the service delivery arms of the houses of worship.  So many organizations have their own non-profit organizations that are specifically designed to provide these much needed services.

Len Sipes:  Three hundred and fifty thousand congregations throughout the United States.  Again churches, mosques, synagogues, 50% … according to your literature … of all volunteers in this country.  Now that’s amazing come to think of it, 50% of all volunteers in this country are faith-based.  That’s powerful.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Yeah.  I think most, if not all, major religions have in their tenants the desire to serve, the desire to be there for the least of these.  And so it’s definitely a strong motivator, faith is, and the desire to help those who are in need of help.

Len Sipes:  Eugene, you have a unique story in terms of this whole faith-based initiative.  One of the reasons that you gravitated towards this arena was that of your own background, correct?

Eugene Schneeberg:  Absolutely, as a young person … Len, we talked about this on the last broadcast … but grew up not knowing who my father was, grew up in a very high-crime community.  And it was really the faith community that was there for me, my local church, my pastor who played the role of the father that I never had.  And I was able to grow my own maturity, grow in the faith.  And I’ve seen firsthand in my life and also in the lives in the young people that we’ve served over the years, the power of when a community comes around someone who’s in need, it’s incredibly transformative.

Len Sipes:  In a system it doesn’t have a lot of good news stories … the criminal justice system at times can be downright depressing … we have high rates of recidivism in this country.  About 50% of all offenders say after three years are back in the prison system, two thirds are re-arrested.  You take a look at these numbers and those of us that deal directly with people under supervision, there comes a point where you say — well this is something a Public Safety Secretary said to me years ago.  He said, “Leonard, are we just spinning our wheels in terms of the high rate of recidivism?”  And the faith-based community basically says, “No.”  Because they embrace this individual coming out of the prison system.  Maybe nobody else wants him; maybe his own mother doesn’t want him.  So he either ends up in a gang on the street or he ends up in a gang for good.  One of the two.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Well, I might need to steal that from you.  A gang for good, I think you know, again in many religious traditions, there’s a tenant of forgiveness, of grace, of redemption.  And so it makes a lot of sense.  I think also in many of our criminal justice institutions, whether it’s parole, probation, the courts or our prisons and jails are just overwhelmed.  And as a result of that, oftentimes they just don’t have the resources necessary to provide all of the services that are needed for someone that’s trying to rebuild their life.  And so faith-based organizations are in a strategic position where they can come along side and help to catch those who fall between the cracks and not try to replace the criminal justice institutions, but really come along side then partner with them.

Len Sipes:  I’m part of the criminal justice system.  Why should anybody listen to me?  There’s something powerful when a person comes along, he’s not being paid for it … I’m being paid for what I’m doing today … he’s not being paid for it, she’s not being paid for it, comes along and embraces this person … now I do want to emphasis as I always do when I talk about the faith-based program is that they are not allowed to try to convince these individuals coming out of the prison system.  They’re not allowed to try to convince them to partake in their religion.  They are specifically told not to do that.  But if I’m there and if I’m by myself and I’m alone and somebody reaches out their hand to me and says, “You don’t have to come to church but why don’t you come … I mean to a church service … but why don’t you come to our church.  Let us find out what it is you need in terms of food, in terms of clothing, in terms of going on a job interview, maybe we’ve got some connections, maybe your child needs some daycare.  Come to us and let us discuss your issues.  And maybe you want to open up and tell us a little bit about your life and who you are and what you are.”  That’s profound.  Either they get us, the stodgy old criminal justice system who’s seen everything and there’s a certain point where we lose our enthusiasm.  Or you get this genuine human being who’s reaching out their hand to you.  That’s such a dramatic difference.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Yeah.  I think there are some limitations in terms of scope of responsibilities that say a probation officer has.  They have a kind of narrow focus.  And their job is to monitor and supervise.  And often times that person from the faith community, whether it’s a mentor or an advocate of some sort, has a different goal in mind.  And has perhaps their goal is to see that person restored or to some sense of wholeness and also to support their families.  And so again,faith-based organizations are key partners.  I just think about here at DOJ, through our Second Chance grants, there’s a category funding for mentoring.  And that’s available for non-profits and faith-based organizations.  And in I think it was 2011 I think we got well over 1,000 applicants throughout the country, many of whom were faith-based organizations.  And we could only fund a fraction of those.  But I think it was just an indication of the outpouring of level of interest and activity that’s going on in faith community.  Likewise we held a webinar at the beginning part of this year and it’s available to see and hear on our website on faith and community based approaches to reentry.  And we had over 2200 registrants Len.  We set a record for the Department of Justice.

Len Sipes:  That’s amazing.

Eugene Schneeberg:  And so that, I think, sent a message that said faith-based organizations, non-profits … and law enforcements particularly interested in this.  I hear from so many police chiefs –

Len Sipes:  Oh, sure.

Eugene Schneeberg:  – wardens, decision makers within the criminal justice system that say, “Hey we want to work with the faith community”.  Maybe we don’t know how, but there’s a desire to do that on both sides of the coin.

Len Sipes:  Well this is an old tradition that goes back decades.  When I was in law enforcement, if somebody was in a jam but he wasn’t a threat to public safety, but he was a threat to himself, we’d gather up the responsible people in that particular community and always the faith-based part of it … there was always a faith-based component.  There was always a priest.  There was always a minister.  There was always a rabbi.  There was always an imam.  There was always somebody there that we grabbed in terms of intervening in the lives of that individual.  So the law enforcement have been reaching to the faith community.  It may not have been known back in the 1970’s as a faith-based initiative, but that’s what it was.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Yeah.  I think you hit the nail on the head.  I think in law enforcement there’s a recognition … you hear this all the time, it’s almost become cliché … where they say we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.  We can’t incarcerate our way out of the problem.  And so there’s a recognition that tough on crime oftentimes isn’t the answer.  It’s better to be smart on crime.  And in being smart on crime, that means that pulling together all the stakeholders in the community, not only the faith community but the non-profit sector, the business community, et cetera.  And I think the faith community would be wise to likewise recognize that they can’t do it alone.  You can’t pray your way out of this situation.  There needs to be these authentic partnerships across the board that cut across silos.

Len Sipes:  I do want to remind the listeners that we do have at the court services an offender supervision agency, a faith-based program involving some 500 places of worship.  You just sit down with these individuals who have been through the faith-based program.  And you talk to them about their successes.  And you talk to them about their challenges.  And to a person … I always ask the same question … what would happen if the faith-based program was not there when they came out of the prison system, to a person.  No exceptions, to a person they would say, “I would either be dead or back in the criminal justice system.”  That leaves me profoundly moved when you have that level of interaction.  I’m not going to suggest that this happens to everybody.  I’m not going to suggest that this happens to 50%.  I’m going to say that there are significant numbers of people who credit their lives and their wellbeing to the faith community, and if the faith community wasn’t there, they wouldn’t be here.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Yeah.  Len, and I think that’s what led to the creation of the faith-based office.  President Bush felt strongly about that and created the White House Faith-Based initiative.  And President Obama feels very strongly as well and that’s why he expanded the responsibilities of the faith-based office in 2009 when he came into office.

Len Sipes:  Now what your office does is basically to coordinate with clergy of religious organizations, criminal justice organizations, neighborhood organizations throughout the country to try to really prompt people to consider being involved in faith-based initiatives.  It doesn’t necessarily mean criminal justice.  It could mean criminal justice, but there’s endless arenas that are quasi-criminal justice where the faith community can reach out to people in need, correct?

Eugene Schneeberg:  Sure.  And so I get this question a lot, Len.  There are 13 satellite offices throughout the Federal Government all coordinated by the central White House Faith-Based office.  I head up the faith-based office at the Department of Justice.  But there’s one at Agriculture, the VA, SBA, Labor, HUD, HHS, all throughout the Federal Government.  Each of which work to strengthen partnerships with faith-based and secular non-profit organizations with the missions of their agency.  So at DOJ we do concentrate entirely on criminal justice issues but which includes mentoring, delinquency, prevention, victims, a lot of things that you might not traditionally think of.

Len Sipes:  For information about our program by the way,, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.  I’m going to give out the website again for Eugene Schneeberg’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  It’s also a White House initiative., Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships.  Eugene, how do we get people involved that may be sitting on the fence?  Somebody listening to this program right now either at a church, mosque, synagogue and they say, “Well gee, maybe we should be participating in this effort to help people come out of the prison system.  We have individuals who maybe they have a background here.  A long time ago they were caught up in the criminal justice system and now they’re doing fine.  But, boy, they would make great mentors.”  How do we convince them to get off the fence and really consider this?

Eugene Schneeberg:  Well, I would say first off thanks for plugging our website.  But I would encourage your listeners to go ahead and go to the website and subscribe to our e-blast that goes out.  We send out regular updates of activities that we’re doing, partnership opportunities and highlighting best practices all throughout the country.  On our website you’ll find a number of different I think very practical, very useful step by step tool kits guides for faith-based organizations along different lines, whether it’s mentoring, whether it’s working with prisoners, whether it’s youth violence prevention, whether it’s responsible fatherhood activities.  They’re all on our website.  And also feel free to email us at

Len Sipes:

Eugene Schneeberg:  Yeah.  Also folks can feel free to give us a call at area code 202-305-7462, that’s area code 202-305-7462.  Len, we really have a open door policy.  We love getting calls from people with questions all throughout the country everyday, people that want to get involved.  And so I would say as a first step you could talk with your local police department.  Many times there’s Crime Watches.  There are city wide steering committees, and I think the law enforcement would love to have more participation on the behalf of the faith community.

Len Sipes:  But do you agree … and I’m pretty sure you do, I think this is a softball question, but I’m going to ask it anyway … but do you agree with this sense that we within the criminal justice system, we within government, we’re somewhat limited compared to the average person out there?  If somebody’s caught on the fence, if somebody’s involved in crime, if somebody is drifting over towards that side of the equation that’s going to get them into a jam, somebody’s now doing drugs, somebody’s now stealing, somebody is now doing a little hustling on the side, they’re moving in this direction.  It strikes me that ‘we’ within the system have limited abilities to persuade this person not to … somebody from the neighborhood, somebody connected to a church, mosque, synagogue that they would have far more power than we would in the criminal justice system.  Not just to help a person coming out of prison, but to persuade a person to move in another direction.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Well, a couple responses, one I think law enforcement, if we’re talking about police in particular, they have a job to do.  They need to keep us safe.  And thank god for police officers.  I have a brother who’s a police officer.  And so nobody wants a community without any police, it’d be chaos.  But they’re not social workers.  And they’re not equipped to do much of the work that non-profits, social service organizations do.  But on the other hand to your point, oftentimes if it’s someone that does have kind of is in the street life or the criminal mentality, often times they’re viewed as having an adversarial relationship with law enforcement.  And so the fact that someone from the faith community can come alongside someone particularly like you said as a volunteer, not being paid to do so, and there’s obviously more of an opportunity to create the authentic relationship.  And like you mentioned the moral authority.  There’s a moral voice to it that says, “You can do better.  We’re here to support you.  There is hope.  There is another way.”  And that’s incredibly powerful.

Len Sipes:  The other thing about it is that churches will come together as a group to deal with a wide variety of neighborhood ills.  So it’s not just a church or a mosque or a synagogue, it’s the group of them.  It crosses religious boundaries.  That’s the thing … when I see a church, a Baptist church and a mosque and a minister and an Imam standing there side by side with a priest addressing neighborhood ills, there’s just something about that that says okay there’s hope.  There’s hope for us within the criminal justice system if we could marshal that sort of power.

Eugene Schneeberg:  You’re absolutely right again.  You see in cities throughout the country alliances, collaboratives where communities speak as one voice.  And it’s incredibly powerful, particularly when you’re talking about advocating for a particular issue like preventing violence or like stopping mass incarceration or banning the box or some of these other issues that we see today.  So that idea of folks working together, that there’s power in numbers is incredibly important.  And we see that in ministerial alliances in other examples as well.

Len Sipes:  Because just last week we had a discussion in this studio with a group of filmmakers.  And there were three videophotographers.  They were all award-winning individuals.  They had won some rather prestigious awards, all three of them.  Dealing with films and still photography, dealing with the subject of reentry.  And I kept hammering away at them what is the magic formula for reaching out to the larger community?  Sometimes I think we in this business speak to the already converted so many times.  And that unless we reach out to the larger community beyond the already converted, we’re not going to get that terribly far.  The example I gave last time was that 80% of offenders caught up in the criminal justice system have histories of substance abuse according to data, ten percent get drug treatment when they’re in a state prison.  So the overwhelming majority of people who need drug treatment aren’t getting drug treatment.  Okay if I’m off by five percent or ten percent, the overwhelming majority still aren’t getting drug treatment.  The reason for that is that we haven’t convinced the larger society that these are programs in their best interest.  But wouldn’t the average person out there see the faith community as in their best interest?  Wouldn’t the average person say, “Well I may not care for whatever reason,  I may not care about a person coming out of the prison system.  But I do care about “the church”, or the faith or the synagogue?”  So doesn’t this strike you as being a way of enlargening the pool who are supportive of programs for offenders caught up in the prison system coming out of the prison system by doing it through the faith community?

Eugene Schneeberg:  Well, I think you’re right.  I think a lot of people get informed as part of their religious expression, whether it’s through weekly announcements or from the pulpit directly.  And so it’s incredibly powerful when leaders in the faith community take up this issue, take up issues of justice.  And we see that being done in all faith’s traditions.  And so you’re right, there’s an opportunity there to reach a population that might not be traditionally tied into some of these criminal justice issues.  And so we meet with regularly groups of faith leaders that come together across denominational lines, across religious ideologies but are concerned about similar issues.  They’re concerned about reentry, they’re concerned about mass incarceration, they’re concerned about employment barriers.  And they come together with a collective voice representing, oftentimes, thousands, if not millions, of congregants in some of these larger denominations.  And they speak with a pretty powerful voice.

Len Sipes:  I think that I’m just … in terms of this last radio show that I did with filmmakers at a radio show that we’re doing today, it just struck me.  They’re talking about doing a national public service announcement.   And it just struck me that … and I was pounding away at them in terms of what’s the theme.  What would you say to the non-converted?  What would you say to the average person?  And it just struck me then maybe the PSA should be somebody representing Catholicism, somebody representing the Protestant churches, somebody representing Islam, somebody representing Judaism coming together at the same time within the frame and saying, “This is something that you need to support.  It’s not only in your best interest, but it’s what God commands.”  I remember from my religious upbringing Jesus didn’t say you have an option about dealing with people in the prison system.  I remember Him saying it was a command to go into the prison system.  Now I don’t expect anybody to be going in the prison systems.  But it really was a command from my religious deity from Christianity that this is something that I had no choice about.  It’s something I had to do.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Yeah.  I think some people feel that it’s more than an occupation, that it’s a calling.  And I think there’s large organizations that focus on what we call prison ministry, the work is done behind the walls.  And then there are organizations particularly over the past ten years that are becoming more sophisticated and recognizing that not only is there a need to meet the spiritual needs of individuals behind bars through Chaplaincy and other types of prison ministries, but really there’s an overwhelming need to provide those services when people come out to help them find jobs, help them get back into school, housing, supportive services like you mentioned for substance abuse and the like.

Len Sipes:  We have about five minutes left.  What is the future for the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships?  Again, it’s Department of Justice, it’s a White House initiative, it’s within all federal agencies.  So where do you go to from here?  Is it just a matter of continuing to do exactly what we’re doing now and put out the call?

Eugene Schneeberg:  Sure, Len.  Well since the last time we were on your show we did roll out our website, which we think is a great tool to reach people throughout the country.  Our subscriber list is growing daily.  On our website we have three webinars that have been extremely well attended.  We had one on faith and community-based approaches to prisoner reentry, faith and community-based approaches to responsible fatherhood, and most recently we had one on faith partnerships with law enforcement.  So I encourage folks to go on our site, check out those webinars.  We’ve also worked closely with our colleagues at the White House to help put on a Fatherhood Heroes events throughout the country.  It’s part of President Obama’s fatherhood and mentoring initiative.  Where we’re going around the country catching dads doing the right thing.  It’s far too often we hear about all the negatives associated with father absence and dads not being around.  We wanted to go around the country and lift up examples of every day dads sticking it out, being there for their children, being there for their families.  And so we started off in DC, then we went to Los Angeles and Orlando and most recently we were in Texas.  And we hope to continue to take the show on the road so to speak.  We’ve also hosted events at the White House called Champions of Change events.  We’ve recognized leaders in the fields of youth violence prevention, of fatherhood.  We hope to have a reentry Champions of Change at the event at the White House sometime in the fall.  We’re rolling out a tool kit for faith-based organizations on how they can get more involved in various criminal justice efforts.  Again we continue to work with cities throughout the country on the national forum on youth violence prevention helping cities to set up comprehensive youth violence prevention plans.

Len Sipes:  Which a big effort on the part of the Attorney General.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Absolutely.  His leadership in that space is critical.  And additionally we also help to support the Attorney General’s interagency Reentry Council, where he’s called together his colleagues, several cabinet members.  And I think at this point we’re up to about 20 federal agencies that are all looking at the issue of reentry through their unique lens.  Agencies that you might not ordinarily think of when you think about reentry, but groups like the IRS, the Office of Personnel Management, all trying to identify ways to reduce barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals, increase public safety and save the taxpayer dollars.

Len Sipes:  Well I’ll tell you it’s, once again, I keep repeating the same things and that’s one of my favorite topics within the criminal justice system.  We did just finish a television show for our audience that will be coming up on our website.  Again,, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.  It’ll be up on the website in about a month or so.  And I do want to give time to go over slowly a lot of the numbers that you gave out today.  So it’s the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  It’s a White House initiative.  And I’m going to let you give out the telephone number, it’s 202-

Eugene Schneeberg:  202-305-7462.

Len Sipes:  202-305-7462.  And that’s, in terms of email.  And you’re one of the very few bureaucrats that I’ve ever met in my life who’s basically said, “Contact me.”  Getting a federal bureaucrat to give out their email address is pretty rare.  They don’t ordinarily like to do it.  And you’re saying, “Hey, call me, email me, go to our website, we’re accessible.”  That’s the kind of guy you want to be.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Well you know I take my lead from my boss at the White House, Joshua Dubois.  And really the Faith-Based offices are designed to be kind of open door to the government.  Yeah, to the government which can be quite complex and so we just want to be a servant and we want to be of assistance to the community.

Len Sipes:  Well and again a lot of people say that.  A lot of people — again, I spent 42 years in the criminal justice system, how many times have I heard a bureaucrat say I want to be a servant to the community?  But I’ve never heard of anybody giving out their phone number and their website address.  So any final things to wrap up?  You’ve got about 30 seconds.

Eugene Schneeberg:  Sure.  Well, I just again appreciate you having us again and please check out our website, email us, call us.  We just think that this is a critical issue.  It’s a critical time in our country where the numbers of folks coming home from incarceration are unprecedented.

Len Sipes:  Seven hundred thousand people ever single year are coming out of federal and state prisons, 700,000.

Eugene Schneeberg:  One of the stats that really motivates me is a stat out of the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, which indicates that roughly about 14 young people are victims of homicide every single day in this country.  So there’s much work to be done and appreciate you, Len.

Len Sipes:  Oh, I appreciate you being here, Eugene.  Ladies and gentlemen this is DC Public Safety.  Our guest today, Eugene Schneeberg, U.S. Department of Justice Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  Again, a White House initiative.  Ladies and gentlemen, we really do appreciate all of the contacts, the emails, calls and for suggestions in terms of improving the program and sometimes even criticisms.  We’ll take them all.  Feel free to contact me directly at Leonard, L-E-O-N-A-R-D .Sipes, S-I-P-E-S at  I am the Senior Public Affairs Specialist for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency here in downtown Washington, DC.  And have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

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