We now have data confirming what objective and open-minded observers already knew: that religious commitment and faith-based approaches, as well as the transformative power of faith itself, can be central in reducing crime. We also know that intentional partnerships between communities of faith and law enforcement can lead to dramatic improvement in police-community relations and subsequent reductions in youth violence and gang activity.
The story of what would eventually be called the “Boston Miracle” symbolizes what can happen when concerned congregations and clergy unite to forge long-term and reciprocal partnerships with police and other public agencies in addressing youth violence. In 1990, after youth homicides had hit an all-time high in the greater Boston area, a group of African-American ministers partnered with government agencies and other community-based groups to respond to the violence and gang activity. Youth homicides not only decreased, but for some 18 months, there were no youth homicides in Boston.
Today, more than a decade later, this partnership remains strong and active. Rev. Jeffrey Brown, one of the early leaders of this collaboration, left his role as pastor to pursue this cause full-time. He is now the executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, whose mission is to mobilize the community on behalf of a primarily African-American and Latino population at high risk for violence, drug abuse, and other destructive behavior.
We also know that congregants attending churches, especially inner-city churches, will respond to requests to mentor the most at-risk group in America—children of prisoners. Dr. Wilson Goode, the former mayor of Philadelphia, and now himself a Reverend, started an effort in Philadelphia to recruit mentors for children who have an incarcerated parent. The program, Amachi, takes its name from a Nigerian Ibo word that means “who knows but what God has brought us through this child.” Goode’s simple pitch from the pulpit of largely black churches goes something like this: “Would you be willing to invest an hour of your week in the life of a child who needs the influence of a caring adult?” The answer to this pitch has been a resounding “Amen.” There are currently some 250 programs for the mentoring of prisoners' children in 48 states, a partnership with more than 6,000 churches that has served at least 100,000 children. What started as a Philadelphia experiment with inner-city churches has become a national mentoring movement.
Faith-based programs also help prisoners themselves. We now have preliminary research that provides insight as to how faith-based programs can be a powerful antidote in counteracting the debilitating prison culture found in so many of our prisons. Stated differently, we are seeing important glimpses of how faith-based programs can help change the prison environment from a laboratory for learning even more deviant behavior to a place where spiritual transformation as well as rehabilitation can become realistic prospects.
Faith-based prison programs that incorporate education and mentoring are largely driven by volunteers and represent the most comprehensive programs available to prisoners. We have initial evidence that the faith factor is linked to inmate adjustment and to reductions in the likelihood of arrest following release from prison. Although we certainly need more research on each of these issues, the next big question to address is this: can networks of faith-motivated volunteers, mentors, and programs provide both the support and supervision necessary not only to help prisoners behind bars, but also to help former prisoners stay crime-free by leading moral and productive lives following release from prison?
I contend that these faith-motivated individuals and groups, dubbed by some as “the armies of compassion,” are capable of becoming the centerpiece of a new crime-fighting strategy that confronts the biggest obstacle of all: the disadvantaged communities where crime, criminals, victims, and former prisoners tend to reside. Faith-based groups and approaches are necessary if we are to develop a new crime-fighting strategy that is pro-poor, pro-family, and pro-society by targeting the very communities that are home to crime-related challenges.
Unfortunately, there are formidable obstacles that must be confronted before this can happen. On the one hand, there will be those who will outright reject such a possibility over concerns of proselytizing, violating church-state separation, and the lack of sufficient evidence to support the notion that faith-based approaches really work. The real reason so many will oppose faith-based approaches and partnerships, however, has little to do with these concerns. In an age of political correctness, one of the last acceptable prejudices is one regularly leveled against the involvement of highly religious people and their faith-based approaches to social problems.
The fact that recipients of faith-based social services are unconcerned about faith-based approaches or proselytizing demonstrates that opposition to faith-based programming is largely ideologically motivated. After interviewing prisoners, parolees, and probationers for more than 25 years, I have discovered that prisoners, drug addicts, and other offenders, like most Americans, are open to matters of faith and, in fact, want to talk about religion. Those opposing faith-based approaches tend to do so because they are either hostile to religion or hold stereotypes and misconceptions of how faith-based approaches operate. For many who are simply hostile to faith-based interventions, it makes little difference whether or not faith-based approaches are effective. This is telling. In an age of limited resources and evidence-based government, it would seem that decisions to support or oppose any program should be based on whether or not it is effective.
On the other hand, though this prejudice against religion and faith-based approaches is a primary culprit in hindering progress we could otherwise be making, it is by no means the only prejudice that prevents faith-based groups from partnering with secular and governmental entities to reduce crime. Many religious individuals and groups hold biases against secular organizations and the government that both discourage and prevent potential partnerships from forming; many within faith-based organizations little trust government programs or secular agencies. As a result, these faith-based organizations operate in isolation of other faith-based social service providers, and therefore they become insular and remain limited in what they can achieve. There is a sense in which they do not trust those they consider outsiders.
When I have approached leaders of faith-based organizations about the possibility of conducting research or evaluating one of their programs, I have often been told, “We don’t need academic research to validate our work—we answer to God, not to researchers.” Another common response is: “We already know our programs are effective.” Additionally, some faith-motivated volunteers believe the answer to crime is simple rather than complex. Crime is seen as a moral problem in need of a spiritual solution. Consequently, many faith-based organizations do not have a track record of partnerships with secular groups or governmental entities, even if the ultimate goal—crime reduction—is shared.
Both of these prejudices are harmful and undermine efforts to address crime. The criminal justice system has enormous problems that require effective and scalable solutions. The escalating costs of crime and justice are too high to ignore such promising solutions. Not only are faith-based approaches beginning to show potential with respect to effectiveness, they are also incredibly cost-efficient. Many faith-based programs are overwhelmingly staffed by volunteers. Indeed, a number of faith-based organizations are adopting programs that are completely or almost completely staffed and led by volunteers. Congregations, more than any other institutions in America, are volunteer-rich organizations that generate millions of capable and highly talented people that support these faith-based approaches.
In sum, considering costs and benefits purely from an economic perspective, we can no longer afford to overlook faith-based approaches to crime reduction. Much can be achieved if we can overcome the last acceptable prejudices that continue to hinder building the partnerships and networks of support, both sacred and secular, needed to address successfully a number of our current crime-related problems.
Byron Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and author of More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How it Could Matter More.