Faith-based prison programs claim to reduce recidivism, but there’s little evidence, says FSU research

Daniel Mears, the Mark C.
Stafford Professor of Criminology

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 600,000 prisoners are released each year. Nearly 70 percent have alcohol and drug problems.
Within three years, roughly two-thirds are rearrested; about 50 percent land back behind bars.

Policymakers across the country are pushing for implementation of faith-based prisoner reentry programming to reduce recidivism levels, but so far studies by proponents and practitioners of such programs haven’t produced much hard evidence that they actually work, according to an extensive review led by a Florida State University researcher and funded in part by the National Institute of Justice.

Assuming no coercion of prisoners and no taxpayer costs, faith-based offerings may fill programming voids at resource-strapped prisons and offer solace and community connections to receptive inmates, suggests Dan Mears, an associate professor in the FSU College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. He co-authored the review, "Faith-based efforts to improve prisoner reentry: Assessing the logic and evidence," that appears in August’s Journal of Criminal Justice.

Mears’ analysis both of existing research on faith-based prisoner reentry and more general studies of the relationship between religion and crime has raised critical questions.

Most importantly, are faith-based programs demonstrably effective in reducing recidivism? Are they relying on secular rehabilitation services and, if so, is any measurable success on their part in fact attributable to those services—not to faith or religion? Are weak studies misinforming policymakers, diverting funding and forestalling implementation of better methods?

Unfortunately, anecdotes are many and clear answers few in the spate of methodologically flawed research currently being offered up to policymakers as proof of efficacy, concluded Mears and fellow reviewers at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. "Despite the call for evidence-based programs and policies instead of belief- and emotion-driven ones, current faith-based prisoner reentry programs don’t remotely constitute evidence-based practice," Mears said.

"We undertook this review while evaluating a faith-based prisoner reentry program. During that evaluation, we found precious little theoretical foundation or empirical research," he said. "What we did find was weak support for a religion-crime relationship, inconsistent measurements of ‘faith’ and ‘religion,’ few methodologically rigorous studies, and significant questions about program implementation and the theoretical foundations of faith-based initiatives."

The fundamental flaw in all the studies: the absence of a clear, consistent operational definition of "faith-based." Is it, for example, nonprofit organizations with religious affiliations delivering secular services such as vocational and drug counseling—or is it individual faith volunteers conducting Bible classes with prisoners? Furthermore, where gains were declared, it was unclear which practices or combinations of secular and religious components generated them.

Regardless of the definitions and measurements used and the manner in which findings were presented, the review found few studies that had generated data credible enough to justify public support—or outright rejection—of faith-based programming.

As an example, Mears cites the Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by Charles Colson, the former Nixon aide who became a born-again Christian while imprisoned for his part in the Watergate scandal. Colson has touted the success of his ministries based on studies that show lower recidivism rates among participants. However, Mears noted that the studies focused only on inmates who completed the program, while comparing its recidivism rates to those of all participants—including dropouts—of selected secular programs.

In fact, if recidivism rates in Colson’s programs were revised to include all participants, "graduates" or not, results would be worse than those for the comparison groups. Where successes might be construed to exist, it’s unclear what to credit—the computer and life skills classes or its fundamentalist Christian doctrine. Where recidivism increases among its program participants, did faith-based programming play a part by leading some inmates to believe that ultimate responsibility for their actions lies with God, not them? Like arguments that faith-based programs decrease recidivism, this possibility remains to be demonstrated empirically.

"Unquestionably, faith-based programs that rely exclusively on volunteers and require no in-kind contributions from correctional systems entail few costs," Mears said. "Yet, important questions remain about what exactly a faith-based program is, why such programs should be expected to be effective and whether they are, and not least, particularly where some degree of coercion is possible, the appropriateness of using any taxpayer dollars for religiousprogramming."

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