POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – At six juvenile commitment centers across Florida, young criminals are studying the Bible and bowing their heads in organized prayer. They are volunteer test subjects in the nation's first faith-based mentor program for teens, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice (search).
"We do believe, and research bears it out, that kids — even if they've been in the system more than once — can make significant changes, especially if they are really supported," said Bob Flores, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention. "And if they want to become part of their community again the only way to do that is to be welcomed by their community."
At a Pompano Beach (search) halfway house, 21 high-risk offenders are taught stories from the Bible, and the discipline of decision-making. While much of the curriculum is Christian-based, the program links kids with mentors of any or no denomination. Volunteer mentors commit to work with the kids for a year after their release.
But critics say the project blurs the line between church and state.
"It makes me concerned that we will end up having government-funded — directly or indirectly — religious conversions. And that, frankly, is not an appropriate role for government," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The program's superintendent said that the project should be judged on whether it works, not whether it offends.
"We're looking at whatever works best for the children, this is what we're going to do. If religion- or faith-based programming works, and this is an avenue for them to change their lives, then this is what we're going to do," said Verdell Young, the superintendent.
The multimillion-dollar pilot program will serve 200 teens for a year, or for the next three years if the model is successful. The Justice Department hopes other states will follow Florida's lead.
Click in the video box at the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Julie Banderas.