Faith-motivated individuals, faith-based organizations, and the transformative power of faith itself are proven keys in reducing crime and improving the effectiveness of the criminal justice system," claims Baylor University criminologist Byron R. Johnson. The author of More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More (Templeton Press) spoke with First Things online editor Joe Carter about why social scientists hesitate to acknowledge the power of faith, and how faith-based organizations can overcome an aversion to partnering with the government.
You present evidence that greater involvement in religious activities lessens the likelihood of turning to crime. Why are many social scientists reluctant to make this connection?
I don't think this message resonates with most social scientists. It is widely known that social scientists, on the whole, are not very religious people. Worse, some are even hostile toward religion. In fact,the word religion is not mentioned in most criminology or criminal justice textbooks, despite what we've learned in recent years about the links between religious belief and practices and crime reduction. One criminologist recently told me there should be an entire sub-field within the discipline looking at the role of religion.
What role should faith-based organizations have in the criminal justice system?
On the whole, I believe faith-based organizations are merely tolerated within the criminal justice system. In some jurisdictions, faith-motivated individuals and organizations are seen as valuable, but elsewhere they are often viewed with suspicion. Some correctional officials view religious volunteers as more of a nuisance than a help. They see them as looking to save souls, and not having a clue about prison security or manipulative inmates. But as the criminal justice system faces cutbacks and shrinking budgets, it will need many allies to effectively manage prison populations. Faith-based organizations provide a key source of volunteers, many of whom are highly trained and eager to assist—not only with spiritual matters but also with traditional programs in life skills, adult basic education, and other important areas.
Are the attitudes of faith-based organizations preventing them from effectively partnering with government agencies?
It's more a case of ignorance than attitude. Many prison ministries are nothing more than individuals who feel called to reach out to the incarcerated. Many of them operate in complete isolation of other faith-based ministries. By and large these groups do a poor job of communicating with and supporting each other. Their approach lacks the coordination necessary to combat problems that require comprehensive solutions. Faith-based groups may do a good job of preaching the gospel in prison, but they need to do a better job of mentoring prisoners while they are incarcerated and sticking with them once they leave.
How would you respond to critics—both secular and Christian—who are leery of faith-based organizations partnering with government?
There are valid reasons for both groups to have reservations, but this should not prevent them from collaborating, especially since we face such daunting problems. Let's test the proposition that religious and secular groups might overcome the obstacles that prevent partnerships from happening. I suspect and hope that when this happens, we will see a great number of myths and stereotypes shattered.
One of your studies found that born-again inmates were just as likely to return to prison as other inmates. Yet you argue that "jailhouse religion"—a conversion experience during prison—can still be valuable. Can you elaborate?
Conversion, in my opinion, is only a first step. It's naïve to think that someone who has a born-again experience won't encounter problems once they leave prison. Spiritual transformation is an ongoing process. If converted inmates are appropriately nurtured and challenged in their newfound faith, they can grow spiritually. I see spiritual development and prisoner rehabilitation going hand in hand.
Can a faith-based prison program rehabilitate inmates, or does the process primarily occur after their release?
I believe the answer to both questions is "yes." I have seen inmates change dramatically over a year or two in prison. They can quote Scripture all day long, and seem contrite and deeply committed in their faith. However, life on the streets is very difficult. They are often without the support and accountability they experienced in prison. When you observe former prisoners in the community, you quickly understand how fragile their situation is and how easy it is for them to become fatalistic if things don't go the right way. This is why mentors and supportive congregations have to be closely involved.
What advice would you give to churches looking to help former prisoners and their families?
First, folks should consider doing some homework to learn about what's happening in particular churches and communities. There may be thriving ministries that need volunteers. People should consider assisting more muscular ministries that are already having an impact. Also, churches should learn to identify "intermediary" organizations that attempt to identify problems and needs, and then match these with appropriate resources. I believe they hold the key to dealing comprehensively with problems like crime and delinquency, and reintegrating prisoners into society.
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Worship Behind the Razor Wire | A growing number of prison churches offer community for convicts. (March 13, 2009)
Rx for Recidivism | Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley talks about challenges the ministry faces. (November 21, 2006)
Imprisoned Ministry | The future of Prison Fellowship's rehabilitation program, and other faith-based social services, are in the hands of an appeals court. (July 14, 2006)
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