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Faith Based Rehabilitation Efforts-journal of Criminal Justice-2006

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Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351 – 367

Faith-based efforts to improve prisoner reentry:
Assessing the logic and evidence
Daniel P. Mears a,⁎, Caterina G. Roman b , Ashley Wolff b , Janeen Buck b

College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, 634 West Call Street, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1127, United States
The Urban Institute, 2100 M Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20037, United States

Prisoner reentry constitutes one of the central criminal justice challenges confronting U.S. society. Coinciding with this
emerging social problem has been increased policymaker interest in faith-based programs to improve outcomes for vulnerable
populations, including released prisoners. Critical questions about the nature and effects of faith-based reentry programs remain
largely unaddressed, however: (1) What is a “faith-based” program? (2) How does or could such a program reduce recidivism and
improve other behavioral outcomes among released offenders? (3) What is the evidence concerning the impacts of faith-based
reentry programs? (4) What are critical implementation issues that may affect the operations and impacts of such programs? This
article examines each of these questions and identifies critical conceptual, theoretical, and research gaps in the literature. It
highlights that the term “faith-based” is used inconsistently, that the precise causal relationship, if any, between various measures of
faith and crime remains in question, and that few rigorous evaluations of faith-based reentry programs exist. It then discusses
recommendations for improving knowledge and practice.
© 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Over the past decade, prisoner reentry has become a
pressing social problem and policy challenge nationally,
with over 600,000 inmates released from state and
federal prisons annually (Harrison & Karberg, 2004;
Lynch & Sabol, 2001; Petersilia, 2003; Travis, Solomon,
& Waul, 2001). If juvenile offenders are included,
approximately 700,000 individuals with educational,
vocational, physical, mental health, and drug treatment
needs enter communities across the country each year
(Mears & Travis, 2004). The magnitude of this challenge
is especially sobering given that prison populations
continue to increase (Harrison & Beck, 2005). It is all the
⁎ Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 850 644 7376; fax: +1 850 644
E-mail address: (D.P. Mears).
0047-2352/$ - see front matter © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

more sobering given that more than two-thirds of
released prisoners will likely be rearrested within three
years of release, and over half will be reincarcerated,
according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (Langan &
Levin, 2002).
While prison populations have burgeoned, policymakers—including current and past presidential administrations, Democratic and Republican alike—increasingly
have expressed interest in faith-based programs to
ameliorate a range of social problems (Chaves, 2004;
Harris, Hutchison, & Cairns, 2005; Hodge & Pittman,
2003; Kramer, Finegold, De Vita, & Wherry, 2005;
Kramer, Nightingale, Trutko, Spaulding, & Barnow,
2002; McDaniel, Davis, & Neff, 2005; O'Connor &
Pallone, 2002). Not surprisingly, there also has been
increased interest in faith-based efforts to improve reentry
outcomes for released prisoners (Johnson & Larson, 2003;
Kerley, Matthews, & Schulz, 2005; O'Connor, 2004,


D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

2005; Roman, Whitby, Zweig, & Rico, 2004). Despite
this interest, critical questions remain largely unaddressed: (1) What is a “faith-based” program? (2) How
does or could such a program reduce recidivism and
improve other behavioral outcomes among released
offenders? (3) What is the evidence concerning the
impacts of faith-based reentry programs? (4) What are
critical implementation issues that may affect the operations and impacts of such programs?
Answers to such questions can help inform criminological theory and faith-based efforts to improve outcomes
among thousands of inmates released from prisons each
year. For criminologists, research on faith-based programs
provides an opportunity to develop more nuanced theories
of the relationship between “faith” and crime. Perhaps, for
example, certain conceptualizations, and thus measurements, of faith yield a stronger relationship with crime and
recidivism than others. Similarly, the influence of faith on
crime may be mediated or moderated by other traditional
crime variables, or, conversely, faith may mediate or
moderate the influence of such variables. For policymakers and practitioners, theoretical advances can provide the groundwork for developing more coherent and
consistent programs, including identification of the
critical dimensions that these programs must address to
be effective. Research shows that programs with strong
theoretical foundations tend to produce better outcomes
(Rossi, Freeman, & Lipsey, 2003), and so such advances
assume particular importance.
Without theoretical advances, backed by empirical
research, policymakers and practitioners may continue to
advocate for faith-based programs, but with little
understanding about how best to structure such programs
so that they have the greatest likelihood of being
effective. Answers to the questions are also important
more generally because they can provide the justification
for supporting (or not) faith-based programs. If, for
example, research shows that reentry programs can
effectively reduce recidivism, a stronger argument in
support of them can be made. Not least, by systematically identifying critical implementation issues, faithbased programs can increase the likelihood that they will
achieve their desired goals.
This article addresses each of these four questions and
then explores several critical policy and research
implications raised by the answers. The central argument
is that better definitions of “faith-based” programs are
needed; that the causal logic of such programs needs to be
better developed both to facilitate appropriate evaluation
efforts and to improve theory, research, and practice; that
considerably more basic and applied research is needed
to place support for faith-based programs on solid

scientific footing; and that a range of implementation
issues must be addressed to increase the chances that
faith-based programs can in fact be effective. Work along
these lines not only can improve theory and practice, but
also can facilitate empirically-grounded debates about
the merits of faith-based programs.
What is a “faith-based” program?
Discussions of faith-based initiatives often assume
that there is a commonly accepted definition of a “faithbased” program. There is not. Indeed, researchers and
policymakers express different views on how to
characterize faith-based programs or they simply use
the terminology without providing any definition. For
example, although the White House Office of FaithBased and Community Initiatives provides examples of
efforts deemed to be faith-based, it offers no precise
definition of a faith-based program or what criteria have
to be met to be viewed as one.1 This situation creates
confusion about what exactly faith-based programs are,
and in turn, how most appropriately to generalize the
results of studies of specific faith-based initiatives.
By some accounts, faith-based programs are funded
and administered by a particular religion, focus on the
faith and religiosity of clients, and “fully express faith in
the way they deliver services” (Smith & Sosin, 2001,
p. 652; see also Burke, Fossett, & Gais, 2004; DiIulio,
1997; Wolpert, 1997). Others take a broader view,
focusing instead on “faith-related” agencies, defined
by Smith and Sosin (2001, p. 652) as
social service organizations that have any of
the following: a formal funding or administrative
arrangement with a religious authority or authorities;
a historical tie of this kind; a specific commitment to
act within the dictates of a particular established
faith; or a commitment to work together that stems
from a common religion.
Following the lead of researchers who employed the
terms “religious-based” and “faith-based service agencies” (e.g., Cnaan, Wineburg, & Boddie, 2000), Smith
and Sosin (2001) advocated using “faith-related”
terminology because it is more encompassing, including
“large traditional providers, mission shelters that do not
have formal ties to a denomination, interfaith organizations, and many others” (p. 653). By contrast, use of the
term “faith-based” incorrectly, in Smith and Sosin's
(2001) view, “assumes that faith can be represented by a
readily identifiable set of practices,” and, “when taken
literally,” the term faith-based organizations “excludes
all but the few agencies that act on faith” (p. 653).

D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

Such distinctions are far from academic. To illustrate,
Hodge and Pittman (2003) found that organizations
described as “faith-based” were so designated even when
their funding came from a wide variety of sources and
when their programming varied dramatically, from
activities that clearly were “religious” or “spiritual”
(e.g., Bible studies) to those that were clearly secular
(e.g., cognitive-behavioral counseling) (Branch, 2002;
DiIulio, 1998; McGarrell, Brinker, & Etindi, 1999;
Sundt, Dammer, & Cullen, 2002). One recent account
found that many agencies that were classified by the
White House Office of Faith-Based and Community
Initiatives as faith-based actually disavowed that terminology, and in some cases were confused, given their
lack of religious affiliation or programming, as to why
they were so described (Stern, 2006).
The result of such definitional ambiguity is that when
researchers, practitioners, and policymakers talk about
“faith-based programs,” they in reality are talking about
a diverse set of programs or volunteer-centered efforts.
Many of these efforts provide no obvious faith-oriented
or faith-specific services, such as assistance with rent and
clothing, transportation, legal and consumer debt
counseling, and child care, to name but a few (Branch,
2002; Burke et al., 2004; Chaves, 2004; Cnaan et al.,
2000; Hodge & Pittman, 2003; Kramer et al., 2005;
Leventhal & Mears, 2002; O'Connor, 2004).
Within the realm of criminal justice, programs
described as faith-based have encompassed a similar
range of services and activities. These programs have
been a ubiquitous feature of American prisons—indeed,
the first penitentiaries were founded on such religious
ideas as penitence for one's sins—and thus indirectly
have focused on prisoner reentry, the subject of this article
(Johnson, Larson, & Pitts, 1997; McGarrell et al., 1999;
O'Connor & Perreyclear, 2002).
Precise statistics on faith-based programs in the
criminal justice system do not exist, in part because
relatively little attention has been given to them by the
research community (see Clear & Sumter, 2002; Johnson
et al., 1997; O'Connor, 2004, 2005). According to one
survey, however, approximately one-third of all prison
inmates participate in worship services and other
religious activities (U.S. Department of Justice, 1993).
A recent Corrections Compendium (“Faith-based
programming,” 2003) study suggested an even greater
prevalence of such programming. Based on survey
responses from forty-four states, the study found that
“instructional faith-based programs and worship services are being offered by 100 percent of the U.S.
[correctional] systems”; “93 percent of [these] systems
offer prayer groups”; “more than 70 percent…include


personal development and parenting classes in their
faith-based programming”; “68 percent…include meditation groups and marriage classes”; “39 percent…have
peer mentors to aid with religious studies”; other
programs mentioned by states, as well as six Canadian
systems that were also surveyed, included “revivals, life
skills, Bible study, family religious festivals, anger
management, musical choirs and bands, prerelease
mentoring, and several religion-specific programs such
as Yokefellow or Kairos”; and “seven of the U.S.
[correctional] systems [Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas] maintain
separate residential housing units specifically for certain
faiths” (p. 8). At the time of the survey, five other states—
Hawaii, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington—
were planning to build such units (“Faith-based
programming,” 2003, p. 13).
Just as there is definitional ambiguity surrounding
efforts to describe faith-based social service programs, so,
too, with faith-based criminal justice programs. Some
have been described as faith-based because they are run
by faith-related agencies. Others have been so described
because of their focus on promoting a particular faith
among participants or the development of individuals'
personal faith (e.g., twelve-step programs, which emphasize turning one's care over to a “higher power”). Many of
the programs focus on prevention or early intervention,
but even more focus on assisting prisoners during and
after release through the support of faith communities and
It must be emphasized, however, that faith-based
programs in the criminal justice system may or may not
have an obvious faith focus (McGarrell et al., 1999). For
example, some programs may be faith-based in that they
are operated by churches or specific denominations, but
faith is not necessarily a component of the programming
(Stemen, 2002). Rather, the programs simply provide or
refer offenders to a range of services, including shelter,
job training, mentoring, and drug treatment (Roman et
al., 2004, pp. 19–20). Sundt et al. (2002, p. 72) illustrated
the point in their study of prison chaplains, which found
that 40 percent “did not select religion as the best method
of treatment” and instead “feel that secular methods are
better suited to bringing about inmate change.”
Of course, faith may be interwoven with or constitute
a focus of these programs. In the course of assisting with,
say, family reunification or linkages to aftercare services,
released offenders might be exposed to “faith” through
the attitudes or behaviors of volunteers (DiIulio, 1998;
O'Connor, 2004). For example, an account of the fifteensite National Faith-Based Initiative for High-Risk Youth,
which involved a partnering of faith-based organizations


D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

with the justice system and the provision of services
(e.g., education, employment, and mentoring), noted:
Faith is a salient factor in the majority of the
programs; it is highly salient in a significant minority
of them…Faith is manifested in the faith-based staff
and volunteers who work with the participants, in the
prayers that are likely to be said in any gathering of
two or more, in Bible study and the reading of other
sacred texts, in the religious music that is played in the
background, and in the incorporation of religious
content into the substantive curricula of the program…
In spite of this, few overt attempts are made to convert
youth or to get them to join a particular denomination
or faith (Branch, 2002, p. 56).
As the Corrections Compendium (“Faith-based
programming,” 2003) study showed, even when the
programming is faith-oriented, the specific services and
activities can be wide-ranging, including “worship
services, Bible studies, religious seminars and retreats,
alcoholics and narcotics anonymous, and fellowship
gatherings,” and can be offered by diverse denominations (O'Connor & Perreyclear, 2002, p. 21). Moreover,
specific activities can be faith-oriented or not, depending
on the organization and its emphasis. For example, in
writing about mentoring programs for youth in the
juvenile justice system, Fulop (2003, p. 2) emphasized:
Mentoring in faith-based settings ranges across many
programmatic dimensions based on the intentional
choices of the specific faith institution that sponsors
the mentoring program. This spectrum of mentoring
programs ranges from secular to faith-secular, faithcentered, or “faith-saturated.”
Inconsistency in the definition or meaning of “faithbased” creates confusion not only about what is
putatively common across diverse faith-based programs,
but also about what kinds of faith-based programs are
effective. This confusion in turn directly bears on
any discussion of the external validity of program
evaluations—that is, the extent to which findings from a
study are generalizable to other settings (Farrington,
2003, p. 54). If, for example, an evaluation finds that a
faith-based program that requires participation in
Christian religious activities effectively reduces recidivism (Johnson & Larson, 2003), that does not necessarily mean that other “faith-based” programs, secular in
nature but sponsored by religious organizations, are also
effective. In short, to facilitate appropriate comparisons
of truly “like” faith-based programs, clear, operational
definitions are needed (Smith & Sosin, 2001).

What is the logic of faith-based prisoner reentry
The question of how faith-based prisoner reentry programs are supposed to work—that is, identifying what it is
that makes them effective—is largely unknown, and thus
subject to considerable ad hoc and post hoc theorizing. To
highlight the importance of this question and to answer it,
this article examines three inter-related issues here. The
first focus is on the types of comparisons that are
appropriate and needed for assessing the effectiveness of
faith-based reentry programs. The second is on three types
of possible program-level effects associated with these
comparisons. The third focus centers around a discussion
of a range of specific causal effects associated with faithoriented programming and the importance of identifying
the mechanisms through which such effects may arise.
Appropriate comparisons for assessing the effectiveness of faith-based reentry programs
To determine whether a program is effective, a basis
of comparison—a counterfactual situation—is needed.
What outcomes would be observed among a given
population if, for example, a given program had not been
offered? With respect to faith-based programs, there is
confusion, evident after even a cursory review of
research and advocacy publications, about what comparisons are appropriate. It is not sufficient, for example,
simply to state that faith-based reentry programs can be
effective. The question is, effective as compared to what?
At least three distinct counterfactual scenarios exist. In
one, it is expected that a faith-based program creates better
recidivism and behavioral outcomes as compared to a
situation in which released prisoners receive no programming. In the second, it is expected that a program produces
as good or better outcomes than “business as usual” (i.e.,
the de facto set of services that released prisoners may
typically access). In the third, it is expected that the
outcomes will be as good or better than those associated
with other reentry programs. Which scenario is appropriate to use as a basis of comparison may well vary
depending on the nature of the program and a given
criminal justice system's current state of practice.
For example, on the one hand, using “no programming” as a comparison may be appropriate. Indeed, the
lack of reentry programming constitutes a common
criticism of reentry practices to date (Travis et al., 2001).
On the other hand, the reality is that many released
prisoners may in fact participate in one or more
community-based services, even if the intensity of
these services may be nominal (Solomon, Waul, van

D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

Ness, & Travis, 2004). In this case, the use of “no
programming” as a comparison is inappropriate (see
Heckman & Smith, 1995).2
Using “business as usual” as a comparison may seem
appropriate. Identifying what that means, however, can
be challenging. For example, one must compile and
somehow weight each of the different types and
amounts of services received. Moreover, since “business
as usual” will vary from one place or state to another, as
well as over time, the results of any comparison may be
of limited utility to others wishing to adopt a faith-based
program that has been found to be effective in one place
or state or at one point in time.
Finally, it rarely, if ever, is the case that most or all
released prisoners will participate in fully developed,
well-tested programs. Thus, using specific reentry
programs as a point of comparison for evaluating faithbased reentry programs generally will produce results of
questionable use. If, for example, a faith-based program is
found to be as if not more effective than another reentry
program, the question arises as to how relevant the
findings will be when thinking about programming for the
general reentry population, most of whom receive either
no programming or a potpourri of diverse services.
Indeed, it may not even be the case that the faith-based or
comparison reentry programs produce better outcomes
than “business as usual” (assuming the latter does not
include participation in fully developed and tested
In selecting what the appropriate comparison should
be for determining whether a faith-based program is
effective, an additional complication arises. What if a
faith-based program provides secular services (e.g.,
cognitive-behavioral counseling) that are already known
to be effective? In that case, to determine if the “faith”
aspect of the program is effective, a comparison is
needed between the program and a situation in which
only the known-to-be-effective secular services are
provided. The bar now is raised, however—that is, a
faith-based program is being compared to one that is
already known to be effective. In such a situation, it
generally will be more difficult to isolate a specific net
effect of a particular program activity, such as faithrelated services.
A related complication lies in the fact that there is
little empirical foundation to anticipate that faith-based
programs will have a substantial effect. Consider, for
example, that research consistently points to a modest
relationship between religion and crime (Baier & Wright,
2001; Clear & Sumter, 2002). Thus, under ideal
conditions, and ignoring the potential implementation
issues that affect any program, one might at best achieve


small reductions in offending. Add to this consideration
the fact that faith-based programs generally offer a range
of services (Branch, 2002; Sundt et al., 2002), and
questions arise as to whether it is reasonable to expect
evaluations to uncover a “faith” effect. Typically, for
example, one would attempt to isolate the net effect of
faith after controlling, whether through an experimental
or quasi-experimental design, for participation in such
services. Under this approach, however—where the
expected faith effects may be slight, other programming
efforts come into play, and implementation issues may be
substantial—it may be unrealistic for anything but the
most rigorous research designs to uncover a faith effect,
especially if the effect is small (Farabee, 2005).
Types of faith-based program-level effects that might
create improved reentry outcomes
Faith-based programs are often described as somehow
obviously leading to improved outcomes. As noted
earlier, however, what a “faith-based” program is remains
open to debate, as does the appropriate basis of
comparison for assessing effectiveness. Assume, however, that “faith-based” programs may encompass a range
of activities, including—but not necessarily limited to—
increasing the salience of religion to individuals,
encouraging affiliation and participation in specific
religious denominations, promoting adherence to specific
directives associated with different faiths, and, more
generally, emphasizing the importance of spirituality in
one's daily life. Similarly, assume that some programs
may simply be self-designated as “faith-based,” per the
policy of the White House Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives.3 The question arises: is it faith
services, faith organizations, or a reliance on secular “best
practices” that is the cause of any identified program-level
In the first scenario, it is possible to imagine a faithbased program that emphasizes specific faith-related
activities (e.g., self-help classes aimed at increasing an
individual's religiosity or spirituality), and that these in
turn generate improved outcomes. Here, as with the two
other scenarios below, the improvement might occur in
comparison with any of the three groups previously
identified (i.e., released prisoners who received no
services, those who received “business as usual”
services, or those who participated in some type of
secular program known to be effective in its own right).
In short, the faith aspect produces improved outcomes.
A second scenario is that faith-based programs provide
no specific faith services but typically are administratively
better, or more efficiently run, than “business as usual”


D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

efforts or other prisoner reentry programs. Any difference
in outcomes thus might arise purely because of organizational efficiencies or characteristics, such as the extent
of coupling with other service providers (Smith & Sosin,
2001). A related possibility is simply that faith-based
organizations, because of their mission orientation and
community connections, can provide many more services
than others (Blank & Davie, 2004). Thus, their effectiveness arises from the fact that few or no services would
otherwise be available to released prisoners (Branch,
2002, p. 1; McGarrell et al., 1999, p. 7; Roman et al.,
2004, p. 20). Here, it is not faith, but organizational
efficiency in the provision of “business as usual” services,
that produces improved outcomes.
A third scenario is that faith-based programs provide
no specific “faith” programming, but rather are more
likely than “business as usual” services or other reentry
programs to emphasize principles of effective intervention (Cullen & Gendreau, 2000), such as a targeting of
criminogenic needs (e.g., substance abuse, employment,
anger) or the use of “best practices” (Sherman et al.,
1997). In this case, any identified effectiveness would
likely be due to the secular, best practices content of the
programming, not faith per se.
Of course, it is possible that all three general factors—
faith, organizational efficiency, and best practices—
might come into play in creating improved reentry
outcomes among individuals exposed to faith-based
programs (see Sundt et al., 2002, p. 74). From an
evaluation research perspective, they all therefore would
be important both for creating appropriate comparisons
and for developing appropriate measures of program
impact. Put differently, failure to take all of them into
account means that inappropriate comparison groups
might be used. For example, researchers may miss the
fact that a faith-based program provides best practice
services in addition to faith-related services. In turn, they
likely would proceed to use secular, non-best practice
programs as a comparison rather than other best practice
programs and services. Then they may fail to identify or
may exaggerate the true effects of the program, and they
may also fail to measure the specific factors that create
any observed effects. For example, they may neglect to
measure organizational characteristics of one or more
faith-based programs or to collect data on their use of
best practices.
Types of faith-related causal effects and mechanisms
through which the effects arise
With these observations made, assume that by a
“faith-based” program is meant one that emphasizes

either entirely or to a substantial degree services that
involve faith-related content (e.g., an emphasis on
developing religious or spiritual centeredness). Two
questions arise: first, what exactly is the type of causal
effect between faith and crime, and, second, what
explains why the effect arises?
It is important to recognize that the broader literature
on religion and delinquency and crime provided
relatively little guidance about these questions (Baier
& Wright, 2001; Benda & Corwyn, 1997; Clear &
Sumter, 2002; Evans, Cullen, Burton, Dunaway, &
Benson, 1997; Evans, Cullen, Dunaway, & Burton,
1995; Johnson, Li, Larson, & McCullough, 2000;
O'Connor, 2004, 2005). On the one hand, relatively
little of this literature examined “faith” as a more general
and encompassing concept than “religion” or “religiosity,” and the bulk of the research used rudimentary
measures, such as the frequency of church attendance, of
these latter concepts. On the other hand, it provided few
explanations about why a link between faith and crime
might exist. Rather, it simply established that a modest
inverse relationship could be found between measures of
religion (e.g., frequency of church attendance, level of
community-level religiosity) and crime, and that this
relationship might vary depending on the type of offense
(Clear & Sumter, 2002, pp. 130–131; O'Connor, 2005,
p. 20; Roman et al., 2004, pp. 4–6).4 The literature rarely
examined the effect of changes in religiosity on
offending (Johnson, Larson, Li, & Jang, 2000; Regnerus,
2003a). In addition, few studies examined potential
faith-crime links as they might exist among populations
of released prisoners.5 Instead, the bulk of research in
this area focused on general population samples, and so
its generalizability to released prisoners, who comprise a
small and unique subset of both the general population
and criminals, was questionable (O'Connor & Perreyclear, 2002).
With these caveats made, the focus of the article now
turns to eight common types of causal effects that can
characterize the faith-crime relationship, including
direct, indirect, interactional, conditional, threshold,
symmetric, nonlinear, and negative effects. For each,
there is a range of specific mechanisms that may give rise
to the effect. Here, these different types of effects, along
with some of the mechanisms that may account for them,
are discussed to illustrate their importance to evaluating
faith-based programs and developing and testing
theories about how such programs, and faith in general,
may contribute to improved outcomes for released
prisoners. The focus will be on “faith” as a general
category that encompasses religion, religiosity, and
spirituality,6 and on individual-level types of effects

D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

(i.e., effects as they occur among individuals, as opposed
to, say, relationships between rates of faith-oriented
activities and rates of crime among cities).7
First, faith may have a direct causal effect, contributing directly to improved outcomes among released
prisoners. Participation in faith-oriented classes may, for
example, result in reduced offending. In this situation,
there may be no obvious or testable explanation about
the causal relationship; it simply, and perhaps inexplicably, exists. Typically, however, researchers expect that
there may be some explanation. For example, it may be
that participation in a faith-oriented class leads individuals to believe that certain behaviors are morally
wrong,8 and this belief in turn may reduce the chances
that the individuals engage in criminal behavior.
Observe, however, that simply because a factor, such
as faith, may achieve its effect indirectly through another
factor, the influence is no less causal. Rather, it simply is
more temporally distal in its causation (Mears &
Stafford, 2002).
Second, as the example above suggests, the effect of
faith may operate indirectly (i.e., through some other
intervening or mediating mechanism) (Benda & Corwyn,
2001). Faith programming may increase participants'
religiosity, which in turn may affect known criminogenic
factors, such as drug use, or increase participants'
willingness to access services that target similar factors.
Changes in these criminogenic factors may ultimately
improve recidivism and behavioral outcomes among
participants. When thinking about unpacking the “black
box” of any relationship (Rossi et al., 2003), such as a
faith-crime link, indirect effects generally are the most
common type of mechanism envisioned. For example,
Smith (2003) recently argued that no fewer than nine
indirect pathways between religion and delinquency
could be hypothesized. Specifically, he identified three
dimensions that included three factors each: (1) moral
order (moral directives, spiritual experiences, and role
models); (2) learned competencies (community and
leadership skills, coping skills, and cultural capital); and
(3) social and organizational ties (social capital, network
closure, and extra-community skills). In each instance, the
suggested logic is that religion—and presumably faith
and other dimensions of religiosity, such as the salience of
faith in one's life (Davidson & Knudsen, 1977)—changes
each of these dimensions and that these changes in turn
lead to improved outcomes, such as reduced offending.9
Other researchers have identified additional indirect
mechanisms that might exist, such as changes in an
individual's social bond, moral values and commitments,
association with conventional versus delinquent peers,
and self-concept (Dammer, 2002; Hirschi & Stark, 1969;


Jensen & Gibbons, 2002; Johnson, Li et al., 2000;
McGarrell et al., 1999; O'Connor, 2004, 2005; Regnerus,
2003a; Roman et al., 2004; Simons, Simons, & Conger,
Third, the causal effect may be interactive (or
moderating) such that the influence of faith programming varies depending on the presence or level of some
other factor (Benda & Corwyn, 2001). For example,
participation in faith-oriented services may create more
pronounced effects for individuals who are involved in
other services, such as employment referrals and skills
training. It may be that participants who have jobs have
more opportunities to put lessons learned from their
faith-instruction into effect, thus reinforcing and
strengthening the faith lessons. Given an interactive
causal effect, researchers still are confronted with the
challenge of explaining why the effect exists. Perhaps
participation in faith-oriented programming increases an
individual's commitment to a set of particular moral
beliefs. These in turn may inhibit offending, but much
more so when the beliefs are supported by the ability to
put them into action in, say, a work environment.
Fourth, there may be a conditional faith effect, that is,
a causal effect that is contingent on the presence of other
factors. For example, an effect of attending faith-oriented
classes may be contingent on participants also taking part
in employment and mental health counseling, such that
failure to participate in the latter services results in no
effect of the faith classes. Assessing the relative
contribution of faith to a given outcome can be difficult
in these cases. Consider, for example, that to start a fire,
oxygen, fuel, and a spark are all needed, and no one of
these factors is obviously more important to the
endeavor. The amount of one of these factors, such as
fuel, may, however, tell one something about the size of
the resulting fire. By extension, the intensity of faith
programming may bear on the magnitude of an outcome,
even when the outcome cannot occur without the
presence of other factors. Here, again, identifying causal
explanations—not only why the effect of faith is
contingent on, say, employment and mental health
counseling, but how the contingent relationship ultimately leads to improved behavioral outcomes—is a
critical undertaking.
Fifth, an effect of faith may arise only after a threshold has been crossed—that is, when a sufficient “dose”
of faith has been achieved. Such effects may be
especially relevant in discussing faith-based programs.
For example, there are many accounts of individuals in
the criminal justice system, as well as outside of it, who
experience epiphanies, moments in which they come to
view faith or the presence of a higher power as critical to


D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

their lives, or in which they arrive at an existential shift in
perspective that leads them to view the world and their
role in it differently (Clear, Hardyman, Stout, Lucken, &
Dammer, 2000; Dix-Richardson & Close, 2002; Jensen
& Gibbons, 2002; Maruna, 2001; Miller & C'de Baca,
2001; O'Connor, 2005).11 Some faith-based programs
may be structured to promote such moments in the belief
that any lasting effect can only be realized through
profound inner change. Whether the belief is true, the
logic implies that it is insufficient simply to be exposed
to faith programming. Rather, a requisite level or amount
of such programming must occur before inner change
occurs that can, in turn, produce improved outcomes.
Here, again, explanations would be needed to explain
how or why the identified causal effect improves crime
outcomes (e.g., perhaps inner change affects an
individual's motivation to commit crime).
Sixth, it also is possible that the effects of faith on
reducing recidivism may be nonlinear. For example,
reductions in criminal behavior may be greater as people
move from being nonreligious to somewhat religious,
and less as people move from being somewhat religious
to very religious. Reiterating the above comments,
explanations about why the causal effect is nonlinear
and how exactly it arises (e.g., through what indirect or
intervening mechanisms) may be diverse, yet are
important to identify. Perhaps initial, marginal changes
in faith have the equivalent effect of pushing a barge that
is stuck off a riverbank—the change frees the barge to
move down river, but any additional push has a muchdiminished effect. Similarly, the effect of faith may be
such that any initial change is more likely than
subsequent changes to affect someone's behavior.
Armed with this knowledge, however, researchers still
would want to examine why this relationship exists.
What, for example, is the mechanism that explains why
any change in faith, whether initial or subsequent, leads
to improved behavioral outcomes?
Seventh, it is possible that all of the above-identified
effects are symmetric or asymmetric. If a causal
relationship is symmetric, then increases in the causal
variable lead to a particular effect, and decreases in it lead
to the reverse effect (Lieberson, 1985). If the relationship
is asymmetric, then the effect only occurs in one
direction and is irreversible (e.g., an increase in faith
may decrease criminal behavior, but a decrease in faith
may not increase such behavior). Consider a simple
example: adding water to a basement results in flooding
and damage to carpeting, but removing the water does
not then fix the damaged carpet. Similarly, perhaps the
failure early in life to develop one's faith contributes to
criminal behavior, but that does not necessarily mean

that developing one's faith later in life reduces offending.
That issue aside, researchers still face the task of
explaining why an identified symmetric or asymmetric
relationship exists. To illustrate, a failure to participate in
faith-oriented activities early in life may lead to a
diminished sense of self-esteem, and in turn, to an
increased propensity to commit crime. By contrast,
participation in faith-related activities later in life may be
incapable of undoing, say, a long-standing sense of low
Finally, there are potential negative effects of faith
that have yet to be closely examined or even conceptualized (Regnerus, 2003a; Smith, 2003).12 Changes in
one's religious beliefs may lead to higher recidivism
rates than would otherwise occur. Consider that some
faith-based programs ask people to openly acknowledge
both their crimes and their powerlessness relative to
some higher force. Acknowledgement of one's past may
well be difficult for some people to accept, especially if
they feel relatively ill equipped to compensate for or
overcome that past. Out of frustration, they may revert to
their previous behaviors, including offending, at even
higher levels. In addition, accepting that a higher power
has ultimate control in one's life could lead to a belief
that one is not actually responsible for specific behaviors,
including crime. Not least, embracing a particular
religion that in turn disappoints in some way (e.g., if
an adherent comes to believe there is a significant
disjuncture between a particular religion's teachings and
practices) may arguably contribute to a disavowal of any
faith, and in turn, a greater propensity to commit crime.
Such possibilities appear plausible, yet have not been
subject to rigorous basic or applied research.
It should be emphasized that other types of causal
relationships, such as contextual and reciprocal causation
(Benda & Corwyn, 2001),13 may exist, and for each a
range of competing causal explanations may also exist.
Moreover, it is possible that two or more types of causal
effects may co-occur. For example, the effects of faithoriented services may be direct, indirect, interactive, and
conditional, or perhaps both interactive and thresholdspecific.14
Although an ideal of science is parsimony—the
simplest theory is, all else equal, the best—in reality,
much of social behavior is not simple (Lieberson, 1985;
Marini & Singer, 1988; Mears & Stafford, 2002; Steel,
2004). In the case of crime and the effects of faith-based
programming, social behavior may, for example, proceed
along the directions sketched here. Indeed, Agnew (2005)
recently had argued that crime theories and research
increasingly pointed to a diversity of causal effects that
contribute to crime. To the extent that this assessment is

D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

correct, existing research on the faith-crime relationship
falls far short of providing empirical documentation of
these different causal effects or theoretical insight into the
mechanisms that gives rise to them (see, however, Benda
& Corwyn, 2001; O'Connor, 2005; Smith, 2003), whether
for general populations, the criminal population, or for the
subpopulation of criminals who were incarcerated and
subsequently released.
Identifying and explaining causal effects is important
for developing theories and contributing to social
science, but it also is important for program and policy
development and evaluation of faith-based programs
and policies. For example, if it is known that a faith
effect arises only when faith services are present at a
sufficient level or “dosage” (see O'Connor & Perreyclear, 2002, p. 17), then practitioners know to develop a
program that aims to achieve such a level. Similarly, if it
is known that a faith effect occurs through an intervening
mechanism, such as increased access to a network of
prosocial peers, practitioners might create a program that
provides additional services (e.g., training in effective
communication) to help ensure that contact with this
network is sustained over time. Not least, identifying and
explaining causal effects is important because it provides
guidance in knowing how to appropriately evaluate
faith-based programs. If researchers know to look for a
specific threshold effect, for example, it will be easier to
find the effect and in turn to demonstrate that a program
was effective. Without such knowledge, the risk arises of
overlooking the effect and concluding that a program is
What is the evidence concerning the impacts of
faith-based reentry programs?
The discussion to this point has emphasized in
varying ways the limitations of research to date bearing
on measuring the effectiveness of faith-based prisoner
reentry programs. These points are elaborated below
through reference to extant evaluations, with particular
attention given to the critical problems that remain to be
First, as has been emphasized, research on the
effectiveness of faith-based reentry programs is scarce
(Clear & Sumter, 2002; Farabee, 2005; Johnson et al.,
1997; Johnson, Li et al., 2000; O'Connor, 2005; Roman
et al., 2004). Indeed, despite the growth in research on
prisoner reentry (Petersilia, 2003), few accounts have
examined faith, and those that have failed to find faith
programs to be effective in improving reentry. For
example, Johnson et al.'s (1997) study found no
differences in recidivism rates between prisoners who


participated in Prison Fellowship-sponsored programming and a matched group of prisoners who did not.
Some studies have found positive outcomes (O'Connor,
2005, pp. 21–22), but these and other such studies
invariably have suffered from considerable methodological problems, including a lack of random assignment, no
use of controls or comparison groups, self-selection
biases, and limited measures of impact (pp. 23–24).
The neglect by researchers of the faith-reentry nexus
might reflect a potential bias (Johnson et al., 1997).
Whether true or not, the inattention is striking. Maruna's
(2001) otherwise excellent account of the “reformation”
process during reentry is illustrative. Despite an extensive
focus on how, as his book's subtitle states, “ex-convicts
reform and rebuild their lives,” the text makes little to no
mention of the potential role of faith in the reentry process,
even though reformation of self is a concept central to
many faiths and certainly to faith-based programs (see,
generally, O'Connor & Pallone, 2002).
Research on faith-based delinquency and crime
prevention programs is, by contrast, more common.
The relevance of this research to prisoner reentry
programs is, however, not clear. For example, many
delinquency and crime programs focus on individuals
during their crime-prone years, not the young adult or
older years in which desistance may be a naturally
occurring process and in which unique challenges,
such as finding a job despite having a felony record,
may be faced. Extant research also provides little
guidance about the content of adult reentry programs
(Roman et al., 2004, pp. 16–19). Furthermore, in most
instances, research on faith-based crime prevention
programs has not employed appropriate comparison
groups or address the causal issues discussed above.
Second, despite a large body of research on religion as
a correlate of crime (Baier & Wright, 2001; Clear &
Sumter, 2002; Evans, Cullen, Burton et al., 1997; Evans,
Cullen, Dunaway et al., 1995; Johnson, Li et al., 2000),
the relevance of this work to ascertaining whether faithbased reentry programs are or can be effective remains
questionable. For example, most studies to date have
focused on the relationship between religion and
delinquency, as opposed to the relationship between
faith and adult offending and desisting processes,
especially among the unique subset of offenders who
entered and eventually were released from prison
(Maruna & Immarigeon, 2004).
In addition, this research has rarely relied on anything
other than single measures of religiosity (e.g., frequency
of church attendance). Thus, it does not adequately
reflect the full range and dimensions of faith (see Benda
& Corwyn, 2001; Clear & Sumter, 2002; Idler et al.,


D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

2003). It does not, for example, typically conceptualize
or measure faith as a broader, more general construct that
encompasses religious salience, affiliation, practice, or
spirituality, or in turn link these diverse dimensions to
different types of offenses (Fernander, Wilson, Staton, &
Leukefeld, 2004, 2005; Roman et al., 2004).15 In
addition, this research has provided few investigations
of the types of causal effects between faith and crime,
especially desistance, that might be operative. Thus,
while the body of scholarly work to date is instructive, its
relevance to evaluations of the likely or actual success of
prisoner reentry programs is subject to debate.16
Third, although the few studies of faith-based
prisoner reentry programs to date constitute important
first steps (Clear & Sumter, 2002; Johnson & Larson,
2003; Johnson, Larson et al., 1997; Johnson, Li et al.,
2000), they typically suffer from the problems described
above. For example, how exactly the programs were
“faith-based” was not always clear, and to the extent that
they were, they might not be representative of other
programs characterized as faith-based.
Furthermore, the comparison groups created for these
studies typically suffered from selection bias issues.
Specifically, the study designs generally precluded the
ability to sufficiently address concerns that the individuals who in general would have had better outcomes
self-selected into treatment while those who in general
would have had worse outcomes self-selected into
comparison groups (O'Connor & Perreyclear, 2002). In
theory, selection effects are not a problem if researchers
adequately control for differences between treatment
and comparison groups. The problem, however, is that
almost invariably studies of faith-based programs do not
employ adequate controls. For example, instead of
controlling for, say, motivation or faith inclinations, they
control for age, sex, race, or prior history of offending,
none of which necessarily (or at face value) are
appropriate for addressing selection effects. This
problem is especially relevant for faith-based programs
because by their very nature, they appear to be more
likely to attract individuals with different levels of
motivation (Schneider, 2001, p. 192).
In short, it simply is too early to say whether faithbased prisoner reentry programs are more effective than
“no programming,” “business as usual” strategies for
assisting released prisoners, or as effective or more
effective than secular, “best practice” reentry initiatives
(O'Connor, 2005, p. 24). By extension, it is too early to
know if any putative effects of such programs are
attributable to faith-related elements of such programs,
organizational operations, or reliance on best practices. It
also is too early to know, among those programs that

explicitly emphasize faith-related services, what kinds of
causal effects are present and how and why they arise.
The dearth of research may be due to many factors,
including the difficulty of developing a typology of faithbased programming that garners general agreement
among researchers, practitioners, and government agencies (Smith & Sosin, 2001). Another factor may be that
many faith-based programs focus on providing services
to address the short-term needs of individuals rather than
on addressing longer-term needs, such as intensive
substance abuse prevention (Chaves, 1999). Still another
may be the relatively small sample sizes and limited
administrative or other data associated with these
programs (Roman et al., 2004). Regardless, the lack of
a solid body of research on faith-based reentry programs
will likely continue so long as the definition of “faithbased” remains inconsistent across studies and until
more methodologically rigorous research is conducted.
In addition, progress will likely be hampered until basic
research can provide a compelling and systematic
theoretical foundation for explicating how faith and
offending are causally (if at all) related. Such research
will need to be linked in turn to efforts to develop specific
programs and policies that take account of communityand individual-level factors that may affect their
implementation and ultimately their effectiveness (see
Roman et al., 2004).17
What are critical implementation issues that may
affect the operations and impacts of faith-based
reentry programs?
Even the most effective programs will fail if they are
not implemented as designed (Rossi et al., 2003).
Although implementation issues affect virtually all
social programs, they may be especially problematic
for faith-based reentry programs. Such issues in turn
reduce the chances that evaluations will identify
significant impacts, such as improved behavioral outcomes. No list of implementation issues can be complete,
but identified here are several of the more prominent
ones that may impede the effectiveness of faith-based
reentry programs.
Unclear goals and uncertainty about how specific
activities contribute to goals
Perhaps the most critical implementation issue lies
with failing to articulate a clear statement of program
goals and how exactly specific activities will contribute
to these goals. Without such statements, it is impossible
to evaluate a program's activities or outcomes, and the

D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

chances increase that important activities will be
inconsistently implemented.
The range of possible goals is extensive, including not
only reduced recidivism but also such other goals as
reducing drug abuse or addiction, obtaining housing,
reuniting with family, acquiring the skills needed for a
particular vocation, and developing basic life skills (e.g.,
how to obtain and balance a checking account, grocery
shop, interview for jobs, recreate in a pro-social manner).
Some faith-based programs, such as the Ridge House
program in Reno, Nevada (Drinan, 2004), attempt to
achieve all of these goals.
With such a diversity of possible goals, the likelihood
increases that faith-based programs will fail to fully
articulate how each goal is to be achieved. As a result, the
programs may not incorporate certain activities that could
be critical to achieving particular goals. To illustrate,
consider a faith-based program that seeks to reduce
recidivism and to increase access to housing among
released inmates. The program may adopt a range of
strategies without fully examining whether the strategies
are the best ones for achieving these goals. Indeed, the
question in each instance is whether specific strategies are
likely to result in progress toward the goals and whether
all staff consistently use or promote the strategies. For
example, does the faith component of the program consist
solely of Bible studies? Or does it include other activities,
such as staff role-modeling of specific faith-related
behaviors (e.g., prayer)? Are such activities really the
most effective way to increase or enhance “faith”? More
generally, are they relevant to increasing access to
housing? In the latter instance, it may be that those
inmates who develop a strong faith orientation become
more confident and thus better able to seek housing. It also
may be the case that other activities, such as referrals to
housing assistance agencies, can be more helpful,
especially if provided in conjunction with faith-related
The number of permutations is considerable, especially
when programs, such as many faith-based initiatives, offer
a range of services (any one of which may require clear
protocols to ensure consistent implementation) and
indicate that they want generally to improve the lives of
released prisoners (which can include physical and mental
health, educational and employment outcomes, reduced
offending and drug use, to name but a few). The more
services and activities that are offered, the more chances
arise for certain goals to be overlooked or for staff to
emphasize some goals or activities and not others. The
result can be marked inconsistency in program services
and activities, and in turn, a diminished likelihood that the
program can substantially achieve any of its goals.


These issues are compounded by the inherent
difficulty of articulating fully and precisely the “faith”
dimension of even the most “faith-saturated” programs
(Johnson & Larson, 2003). Even if there were no such
challenge, faith-based programs may purposely be
vague in their explicit goals and how these are to be
achieved. The fear is that any overtly articulated faith,
spiritual, or religious services or activities may prevent
or cause the loss of government funding.
Inconsistent implementation
Even when a program has clear goals and an articulated
logic model for the specific activities that will be
undertaken to achieve the goals, obtaining consistent
implementation of these activities can be difficult. This
issue may be especially critical for faith-based programs.
Referring to the example above, if a critical element of a
faith-based program involves role modeling of faithrelated behaviors, the risk arises that different staff will
model such behaviors differently. Indeed, for many
individuals, faith may be something that they express in
their own unique way. For program participants, however,
the diversity of ways in which faith is role-modeled may
be confusing or differentially reinforced by different staff,
thus inhibiting their ability to learn what is expected or
how to behave.
In addition, some faith-based programs premise their
effectiveness in part on the ability of staff-client relationships to help motivate clients to change. Thus, if, as one
might expect, some staff develop less close relationships
with clients than do other staff, the chances that they will
motivate the clients to change is correspondingly
diminished. In turn, the clients may be less likely to be
exposed to the very experiences that the program
emphasizes to achieve its goals.
The challenge of coordinating diverse organizations
and agencies
Faith-based programs frequently are described as
community-based efforts entailing the coordination of
diverse services through many different organizations
and agencies (Blank & Davie, 2004; Branch, 2002).
Such efforts are challenging as a general matter (Harris
et al., 2005; McCord, Widom, & Crowell, 2001). To
be effective, they must match clients with appropriate
services, and they must then work closely with other
entities who provide the services. To do so successfully requires effective leadership and considerable
effort and planning, as well as sufficient funding and


D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

Virtually any organization may experience difficulties in addressing each of these dimensions. Faith-based
organizations face, however, the additional challenge
that other community organizations may strongly resist
or oppose their efforts, reflected in no small part by the
partisan and divisive nature of the issue nationally
(Hercik et al., 2005; Jablecki, 2005; Pew Forum on
Religion and Public Life, 2005).
In addition, some may be better situated that others to
obtain the support and assistance of important local
organizations. For example, Leventhal and Mears (2002)
studied Catholic churches in a large urban city in Texas
and found that some were better able to forge ties with
the local Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which in
turn enabled them to gain access to specific social
services for their clients. Given that faith-based
programs serving released inmates typically operate
with limited funds (discussed below), the traditional
challenges confronting community-based organizations assume greater prominence. Effective leadership
becomes more important, for example, as a basis for
leveraging services from other organizations and
Insufficient or inconsistent funding
Finally, sufficient and consistent, sustained funding
can be another critical challenge. Nationally, financial
support for faith-based reentry programs appears to be
greater than in previous decades, yet such support cannot
be taken for granted (Burke et al., 2004). Frequently, it is
a relatively trivial percent of the funding programs need
to exist (Smith & Sosin, 2001). In such cases, faith-based
programs must rely on the support of volunteers,
churches, community associations, county and state
agencies, and other diverse organizations, contributing
to program instability. Many smaller faith-based programs may simply lack the administrative infrastructure
and experience to apply for funding, thus placing
program operations at risk. In addition, sustained
funding for program operations may be threatened by
neighborhood opposition to efforts involving released
prisoners (Tucker, 2003). Against this backdrop, faithbased reentry programs face the daunting challenge of
maintaining the integrity of their efforts and sustaining
them over time.
Prisoner reentry stands as one of the central social
problems confronting the United States today, and faithbased programs increasingly are being promoted as an

effective strategy for managing this problem. Such
programs hold much promise. Critical conceptual and
measurement issues must be addressed, however, before
that promise can be supported empirically. Research to
date simply provides too little a foundation for clearly
identifying when programs are “faith-based” or for stating
that such programs effectively improve recidivism and
other behavioral outcomes, and existing faith-based
reentry programs generally have not been subject to
rigorous theoretical or empirical analysis (Farabee, 2005).
To improve research and practice, the first priority
should be to develop a foundation, such as the one
suggested by Smith and Sosin (2001), to classify faithbased programs, identifying distinguishing characteristics of “faith” and “faith-related programming.” As
discussed above, Smith and Sosin (2001) had argued that
using “faith-related” terminology provided greater
flexibility, ensuring that programs that were not
associated with a particular denomination or church
nonetheless were classified as involving a faith dimension. At the same time, clear distinctions should be made
between organizations with formal ties to particular
denominations and those with no such ties but that
express a specific religious or theological orientation.
When denominations or faith organizations are involved,
it is important to ascertain whether a faith-based program
reflects the denomination's or organization's ethos or
takes an approach that is unique or substantially
Regardless of organizational affiliation, a further
distinction is critical—namely, does the content of the
program center primarily around some element of religion
or faith (e.g., prayer) or is it primarily secular in
orientation? More generally, what is the intensity of the
faith component? For example, does the program rely
solely on a single type of faith-related programming (e.g.,
Bible studies) or many types, or does it provide a milieu or
“faith-saturated” environment (Johnson & Larson, 2003,
p. 8)?
Extending Smith and Sosin's (2001) framework in
this way provides considerable flexibility for creating
meaningful classifications of faith-based programs for
bases of comparison. Implicit in the approach is the
recognition that not all faith-based programs are the
same, and that evaluations should account for the precise
organizational and faith components of these programs.
Perhaps an evaluation may find that largely secular
programs that include Bible studies are consistently no
more effective than those that exclude such studies. That,
however, would not justify saying that all faith-based
programs, such as those that attempt to create a “faithsaturated” environment, are ineffective.

D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

Once the precise faith aspect of a program has been
identified, the critical next step is to identify appropriate
comparison groups to assess the program's effectiveness
in reducing recidivism and improving other outcomes.
Here, many possibilities present themselves and depend
entirely on the type of faith-based program of interest. In
the ideal instance, however, a pool of eligible candidates
is randomly assigned to the program and to some
“business as usual” option. In such cases, even if the
latter includes a range of services, an evaluation can
determine whether the faith-based program exceeds the
benefits associated with such services. For example,
Operation Starting Line (OSL), an evangelical prison
ministry program, conducts one-day events, held in
prison facilities, where “program organizers, staff, and
volunteers [have a chance] to interact with inmates and to
share a message of faith and hope” (Kerley et al.,
2005, p. 415). These events occur nationally, providing
many opportunities to create comparison groups. To
illustrate, even if participation in such events is
voluntary, researchers could identify similar inmates in
similar facilities where the event is not offered, and
compare in-prison and post-prison outcomes. This type
of design is important because an individual's faith may
be a motivator for program entry, and the design ensures
that the comparison group is made up of individuals
who have similar motivations or characteristics. A
related type of quasi-experimental design would involve
using a waiting list of individuals for the program under
study; individuals from the list likely would have similar
motivations and characteristics.
Researchers then must determine whether any
identified effect (e.g., reduced recidivism), if such exists,
is attributable to some faith aspect of a given program, its
organizational operations, or its reliance on secular
services that would be considered best practices. Here,
again, an experimental or quasi-experimental design
affords the greatest leverage for disentangling these
possibilities. For example, some faith-based programs,
such as the InnnerChange Freedom Initiative (Johnson &
Larson, 2003), operate a largely similar program in
multiple prisons. Were particular aspects of each prison
program to be systematically modified and monitored,
researchers would be better positioned to evaluate
whether the program was more effective when it
emphasized certain activities (e.g., mentoring) over
others (e.g., biblical studies) or when the faith activities
were similar but the leadership, staffing, or other
organizational features varied.
Finally, in those situations where the effect is held to
result from some faith-related activity, researchers need
to identify the specific type of causal effect that exists


(e.g., direct, indirect, interactional, conditional) and then
explain why it exists. For example, does acceptance of a
higher power lead to greater motivation to participate in
other types of treatment, to greater self-control, or to
some other change that in turn reduces the likelihood of
crime or an improvement in some other behavioral
Scholarly research can be especially useful in this last
regard by exploring how faith and desistance from crime
may be related. Some research (e.g., Clear et al., 2000)
suggests that prisoners who “find religion” or renew their
spirituality while in prison or in a rehabilitation program
may be less likely to reoffend. Researchers should seek
to understand the factors that shape released prisoners'
decision to desist from crime. In addition, studies of the
faith-crime nexus should employ a much wider array of
measures of faith, with causal linkages examined that
take account of the diverse ways in which diverse
dimensions of faith (e.g., involvement in specific faithrelated activities versus adherence to specific religious
beliefs) may influence social behavior. They also should
distinguish between spirituality and religiosity, denominational affiliations, and the salience of these dimensions to individuals. Research along these lines will be
important for improving theoretical understanding of
how faith, crime, and recidivism may be related and for
synthesizing a diverse range of studies.
Not least, increased research is clearly needed on the
range of prisoner reentry outcomes relevant for assessing
effectiveness. As O'Connor (2005, p. 24) recently
emphasized, even if faith-based programs do not reduce
recidivism, they may achieve other outcomes, such as
humanizing the correctional system experience or
improving employment and housing conditions. Improvements along these dimensions conceivably can
improve recidivism. Even if they do not, however, they
constitute a substantial benefit to these individuals, the
communities to which they return, and society.
Research on faith-based programs, guided by the
above considerations, will also be important for program
and policy formation. It can, for example, be used to guide
the logic, structure, and activities of specific reentry
programs and policies. Too often, programs are developed
without clearly articulating goals and how exactly specific
activities will contribute to these goals. The result can be
inconsistent implementation and reliance on assumed
causal relationships that may be suspect. This situation
can and should be avoided for two reasons. First, a body of
research on faith and crime exists that can inform the
development of a theory-based program with clear goals.
Second, programs and evaluations guided by a sound
theoretical foundation are likely to produce better, and


D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367

more likely to be measured, outcomes (Chen, 1990;
Lipsey & Derzon, 1998; Lipsey & Wilson, 1998).
In addition, policymakers and practitioners can use
such research to defend, where appropriate, support for
faith-based reentry programs. Although these programs
clearly hold promise, the absence to date of empirical
evidence creates the risk of a backlash. Crime policies
historically have tended to follow specific trends (e.g.,
rehabilitation versus “get tough” approaches). So, the
problem is that faith-based programs will come to be seen
as ineffective and dismissed as a passing fad even though
they may be effective. Increased and better research may
well diminish the chances of that happening, especially in
an era that stresses accountability and evidence-based
Given the ongoing emphasis on faith-based programs
(Meckler, 2005), a unique opportunity exists for policymakers to promote such research. For example, they can
require that federally funded faith-based programs must
develop clear logic models and at the same time can
support evaluation efforts of these programs. Anything
less than this type of systematic approach is likely to
leave current debates about faith-based programs at a
standstill, with proponents accepting “on faith” that
faith-based programs are effective and opponents
rejecting, on similar grounds, that assessment. Of course
for some critics, effectiveness is irrelevant—in their
view there is a constitutional requirement that church and
state be separated, especially where taxpayer dollars are
concerned (McDaniel et al., 2005). As with many policy
debates involving constitutional or philosophical differences of opinion, research cannot be the ultimate arbiter,
but it can help place such debates on a firmer foundation.
Partial support for development of this article was
provided by research grant #2004-DD-BX-1123,
awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of
Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of
view in this article are those of the authors and do not
necessarily represent the official position or policies of
the U.S. Department of Justice or of the Urban Institute,
its board of trustees, or its sponsors. The authors
gratefully thank Avi Bhati, Emily Leventhal, Shelli
Rossman, and Christy Visher for their helpful suggestions, the practitioners who provided numerous insights
and much of the inspiration for this article, and the
anonymous reviewers. A version of this article was
presented at the Annual Meeting of the American
Society of Criminology, Nashville, Tennessee, in
November 2004.

1. Staff at the White House Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives (personal communication, October 6, 2004
via confirmed with the lead
author that the Office uses no legal or other definition of a “faithbased” program.
2. Heckman and Smith (1995) discussed the logic of evaluation
designs involving social experiments. They emphasized, among other
things, that comparisons involving “treatment” and “no treatment”
frequently entail an inappropriate counterfactual logic. It likely is the
case, for example, that some type of services are available to the
general population of individuals sampled for the treatment group. In
creating a comparison group, however, researchers may well select
individuals who receive no treatment (or assign them to the group that
is to receive no services). An evaluation thus might show that
treatment “worked,” meaning that treatment was more effective than
receiving no services. Use of such a comparison group, however,
might be inappropriate if in fact most individuals receive some
services. Indeed, if compared with individuals who received “business
as usual,” which might well include services of some kind, there might
be a less pronounced “treatment” effect, or perhaps no effect at all.
3. See note 1.
4. Although the evidence for an inverse relationship between
measures of faith and criminal behavior is consistent, evidence
supporting the idea that this relationship varies depending on the type
of offense (e.g., crimes, such as drug use, strongly prohibited by
particular religions) is limited (Evans, Cullen, Dunaway et al., 1995).
Denominations do not appear to differ appreciably in their rates of
individual-level offending (Ellis, 2002).
5. Additional limitations exist as well. For example, it can be
argued that any link between religion and crime is spurious. The “true”
underlying relationship may be that some individuals differ with
respect to certain neurological characteristics that make them more
prone to embrace or avoid religion (Cochran, Wood, & Arneklev,
6. Faith, religion, religiosity, and spirituality need not be the same
and, in fact, are conceptualized in different ways in the literature
(Fernander et al., 2004, 2005). In reality, then, the issues discussed
here are more complicated.
7. Some work examined ecological-level relationships (O'Connor, 2004, p. 17). For example, Stark, Doyle, and Kent (1980) found
that metropolitan areas with higher rates of church membership
experienced lower crime rates. These and related studies are not
discussed here because faith-based programs typically focus on
individuals (O'Connor, 2005, pp. 19–20).
8. Many studies have suggested that, as a general matter,
religiosity is positively associated with moral prohibitions against
crime (Kerley et al., 2005; Stylianou, 2004).
9. Smith's (2003) argument rested on the assumption that there
indeed is something causal about the role of religion: “[There is]
something particularly religious in religion…that…can exert ‘causal’
influence in forming cultural practices and motivating action”
(pp. 19–20, emphasis in original).
10. Hirschi and Stark's (1969) study of the relationship between
religion and delinquency, and their positing of the “hell fire” thesis
(namely, that religious individuals are more likely to refrain from
criminal behavior out of fear of punishment in the afterlife), was the
forerunner of much research today on this topic, and directly
contributed to the application of social bond and social control
theories as frameworks for explaining any link between these two

D.P. Mears et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 34 (2006) 351–367
11. The director of one faith-based prisoner reentry program, the
Ridge House residential program, has made just such an argument
(Drinan, 2004). The program reportedly disavows the term “faithbased,” but does include a strong emphasis on encouraging spiritual
12. Regnerus' (2003a) study suggested that in certain contexts
parental religiosity might contribute to increased delinquency. Smith
(2003) suggested that religious involvement might, for a variety of
reasons, have no effect or result in a negative effect. He also
emphasized that research outside of criminology suggests some
negative effects of religious involvement, including the potential for
it to inhibit educational attainment (see Darnell & Sherkat, 1997).
13. Contextual relationships may occur when, for example,
ecological-level conditions affect individual-level outcomes. Some
research points to the possibility of an interaction effect between
ecological conditions and the effects of measures of individual-level
religiosity. For example, Stark and Bainbridge's (1997) study
indicated that religion inhibits individual-level offending more
strongly in rural southern communities as compared with individuals
in large East Coast cities (see, however, Benda & Corwyn, 2001).
Reciprocal relationships arise when two factors affect one another.
14. An evaluation of the Ridge House residential program in Reno,
Nevada, suggested that all four possibilities might in fact be operative
in the program (Drinan, 2004). Smith's (2003) analysis, among others
(e.g., Benda & Corwyn, 2001), suggested similar complexities in the
way in which faith might contribute to reduced offending.
15. Fernander et al. (2005) emphasized that relatively little
attention had been given to measures of spirituality and criminality
(p. 682). They noted: “isolating the links between spirituality and
criminality and religiosity and criminality may be informative as
individuals who identify themselves as spiritual do not necessarily
involve themselves in religious organizations or activities, or vice
versa” (p. 683). Further, according to Roman et al. (2004), the vast
majority of studies on the relationship between religion and crime “had
used only one item to measure religion” (p. 13). The range of measures
used varies dramatically, and can include such dimensions as church
attendance and membership, religious salience or attachment, belief
that certain actions are a sin and/or will result in supernatural sanctions,
spirituality, and involvement in religious or spiritual activities.
16. Interestingly, one of the stronger supports for the logic of some
faith-based programs comes from studies that show the role of
ecological-level conditions in reducing individual-level offending.
Studies of the “moral communities” hypothesis, for example, suggest
that in communities that are more religious (as measured in various
ways), the propensity of individuals to commit crime is lower
(Bainbridge, 1989; Regnerus, 2003b; Stark, Kent, & Doyle, 1982). A
review of the literature, however, turned up few examples of faithbased correctional or reentry programs that drew on this line of
reasoning. The causal logic is nonetheless compelling in some
respects. For example, to the extent that particular programs recreate
the context of a larger “moral community,” they may well help inhibit
criminal behavior and promote prosocial behaviors. The question
arises, then, as to whether this effect is sustained once an individual
leaves the program. Researchers simply do not know the answer, and
have not yet examined whether ecological effects of “moral
communities” continue to exert influence on individuals who leave
these communities.
17. Roman et al. (2004, pp. 27–31) suggested a conceptual
framework that attempts this task by sketching ways in which different
theoretical perspectives and empirical research might be linked in
general ways to specific program activities and sets of short- and longterm outcomes.


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