James Q. Wilson, one of the few major thinkers on criminal justice public policy issues to demand a vigorous evaluation (our earlier post on evaluating rehabilitation programs includes his definition of rigorous evaluation) before proclaiming a rehabilitation program successful, reviews a new book on the subject in the Wall Street Journal.
“This book has two messages. First, religion reduces crime. Second, look what happens to scholars who say this is true.
“The first argument rests on the work of Byron R. Johnson, a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who compiled a survey of every study between 1944 and 2010 that measured the possible effect of religion on crime. He found 273 such studies. As he reports in "More God, Less Crime," even though their authors used different methods and assessed different groups of people, 90% of these studies found that more religiosity resulted in less crime. Only 2% found that religion produced more crime. (The remaining 8% found no relationship either way.)
“Does this prove that religion reduces crime? Not precisely, for these are all quasi-experimental studies. If they were truly experimental and thus carried greater intellectual weight, the researchers would direct people, none of whom had any religion, either to acquire and practice one or to remain godless and thereby stay in the control group. We would then compare the groups' crime rates. Doing this would be immoral, illegal and impractical, and so we are left with studies that compare religious and nonreligious people and try to control statistically for other factors that might explain away the religion-and-crime link.
“How much confidence, then, should we have in nonexperimental studies? Not a lot, as none of the studies that Mr. Johnson cites show the statistical controls necessary to evaluate them. But offsetting this weakness is the number of studies showing a religious effect. And we can look at a few of the best ones, such as that by Richard Freeman. A Harvard professor of economics, he arranged for 2,358 young black men living in downtown Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia to be interviewed. He found that, other things (such as family and economic background) being equal, going to church is associated with substantial differences in how young men behave. More churchgoing, less crime, less alcohol and fewer drugs. As Mr. Freeman puts it: "The effect of churchgoing is not the result of churchgoing youth having 'good attitudes.' " If you want to see his reasons, look at his book "The Black Youth Employment Crisis" (1986).
“The interesting question is whether society can make religion more important in the lives of convicted offenders. The largest effort to do this is managed by the Prison Fellowship, an organization created by Charles Colson in the 1970s when he was in jail after having pleaded guilty to charges involving his role in the Nixon administration's effort to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers leaker.
“Evaluating the Prison Fellowship program is not easy. Inmates, according to the organization, must complete all three phases of its program in order to benefit. Phase one involves Bible study while in prison; phase two requires community service during the day at a nearby city; and phase three means linking up with mentors and churches in the community. Each phase lasts about a year.
“Mr. Johnson looked at the program's effectiveness in Texas and found that those who completed all three phases were much less likely to be arrested or incarcerated for a new crime than those who dropped out. The key question is whether the inmates who go through all three phases differ in other ways from those who never join the program or drop out early.
“In an earlier study of inmates at four New York prisons, Mr. Johnson says, there was no difference between Fellowship and non-Fellowship groups over an eight-year period except for those members of the program who worked hard at Bible studies. Even then, the effect lasted for only two or three years after their release.”