OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Legislation that encourages churches and other faith-based groups to prepare state inmates for life after prison and reduce the number of repeat offenders was overwhelmingly approved by the Oklahoma House Tuesday.
Lawmakers voted 93-4 for the legislation in spite of concern that it may violate the constitutional separation of church and state and would give faith-based groups some of lawmakers' oversight authority over the state Department of Corrections.
Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said he agreed with the goals of the legislation. ``They are extremely meritable and worthy. But you are crossing the line,'' Morrissette said.
Rep. Al Lindley, D-Oklahoma City, said it is appropriate for church groups to work with state prisoners but they should pay for the services with money the groups raise on their own, not state tax dollars.
``State government has no business paying for programs run by a church,'' Lindley said.
Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, said the legislation offers ``a glimmer of hope'' to state inmates who need help as they prepare to leave their prison cells and re-enter society.
``Send a ray of hope that you think their lives can be productive. And give them some help,'' Wright said.
The measure's author, House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, said government should not discriminate against faith-based and volunteer groups that want more input in counseling and rehabilitation of state inmates.
``If it's a good program, demonstrated results, it's worthy of support,'' Cargill said.
He said the faith-based program will initially be funded with $100,000 in state funds. A policy council composed of lawmakers, prosecutors, crime victims and former inmates will review prison re-entry policies and suggest improvements.
Cargill has said statistics point out that two-thirds of all prison inmates commit new offenses and wind up back behind bars within three to five years.
The measure would establish incentives for partnerships between prison officials and faith-based and community groups. It would also encourage private and public groups to help inmates find jobs and services before they are released.
``I think faith plays an important role in a person's life,'' Cargill said. ``A government program doesn't love anybody. People love people.''