Around 150 former Dallas inmates graduate

February 28, 2010 2:35:15 PM PST
Megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes says it's cheaper to rehabilitate criminals than to incarcerate them, and wants to see a shift in where state and national resources are allocated. "I'd like to see us stop the propensity that we have today to make a big business out of incarceration," Jakes said Sunday. "I'm trying to show the benefits of rehabilitation."

He spoke moments after 150 former inmates graduated from a program designed to increase their odds of succeeding after prison. They commenced to thunderous applause at Jakes' packed 9,000-seat Dallas church, The Potter's House.

Nearly 1,000 people have completed the 12-month Texas Offenders Re-entry Initiative, or TORI program, since its founding in 2005. Participants get help with everything from job searches, life skills and housing to financial literacy, education and substance-abuse counseling.

"It was a blessing from A to Z," said Don Evans, 44, who had spent three years in prison for firearms possession. Dressed in his green graduation robe, he cradled his 5-month old daughter, saying he was encouraged that some people understand that he simply made a mistake.

"When an inmate comes back from being incarcerated and can't get a job or a place to stay, they're almost destined to recycle back into the criminal justice system," said Jakes, explaining that more business owners need to be willing to hire former inmates and apartment owners must be willing to lease to them.

Nearly one-third of the state's former inmates return to prison within three years, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"I think we have written off ex-offenders to a degree that we have one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation," Jakes said. "We've had to spend all our money building walls around our homes (to feel safe). Pretty soon you have to ask yourself, who is really being incarcerated? So our indifference is costing us in a lot of ways."

About 5,000 former inmates have been served through some aspect of the TORI program, which operates in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and Houston.

Jakes, who wants convicted felons to be given the right to vote, estimates that about 40 percent of those who start the TORI program successfully complete it. Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Michigan have begun analyzing data to assess its effectiveness, organizers said.

"The church can play a role uniquely apart from the social services that are done in the secular system," Jakes said. "It's very important that we put faith into this process because faith becomes the fuel that makes people have the power to change their lives."

But he stressed that ex-offenders don't have to be Christians or members of any faith to participate. They'll accept anyone except sex offenders because they're not equipped to work with them.

Food Network TV personality Jeff Henderson, who served 10 years in prison for a drug conviction, told the graduates that "every one of you has potential."

"I'm a walking, living witnesses that it can be done," said Henderson, the host of The Chef Jeff Project.

The graduates received their certificates from Dallas County criminal judges, some of whom may have handed them their initial prison sentences.

For many, especially those who were not high school graduates, the occasion marked the first time they had ever completed anything positive in their lives, said Tina Naidoo, the initiative's executive director.

"They've done the time to pay for their crime" and deserve a second chance, she said.