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A fresh start

Do faith-based programs work to rehabilitate criminal offenders?

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Amanda Allen was born addicted to heroin and alcohol, and became a victim of sex abuse, neglect and domestic violence. She grew up with a drug-addicted mother in Oklahoma who “partied 365 days of the year,” according to the Prison Project. She describes fearing the sun setting and assessing “every new person who came in the room (to) try to figure out who they would molest first — me, my mom or my sister.” Amanda eventually succumbed to addiction herself and was charged with drug conspiracy, resulting in federal prison time. When she was released from prison, she was unable to find a job. She applied for 188 jobs with no success but eventually came across Renée La Montagne Dunn, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who runs the Prison Project. Dunn volunteered to coach Amanda. Today, Amanda credits the program, and Dunn’s belief in her, with turning her life around. 

Dunn was motivated by her own faith, and experiences helping a daughter struggling with addiction, to start the Prison Project, which makes faith in a higher power central to recovery. She works with people of diverse faiths, including Muslims, Hindus and Christians, and she says that through her experience in addiction recovery she has found “people are just more successful when they are accountable to their God.”

As a professor, criminal justice expert and a deeply faithful person, I have to admit that realizing the principles that undergird my faith could be a viable solution to the troubles of criminal justice took an embarrassingly long time. I started my work with inmates in 2006 and have focused much of my scholarship on how improved data, risk assessments and constitutional and structural reform could fix criminal justice problems. Not until 2021 did I decide that I needed to dedicate more thought and research to showing how faith and religious principles could help reduce crime and incarceration, improve addiction recovery and recidivism and so many other social ills. 

The problem is this is not a field of scholarship in criminal law. Faith-based solutions to criminal justice problems is not a specialty of many criminal justice scholars and data on whether these programs work is sparse. Professor Daniel Mears, of Florida State University, and his co-authors pointed out this problem in a piece in the Journal of Criminal Justice: “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.” Many of my colleagues and other experts are not considering the panoply of tools faith-based approaches offer to vexing social problems like recidivism. A notable exception is that one of the most successful alcohol and drug abuse programs, according to experts, is the 12-step approach (like Alcoholics Anonymous), which is faith-based and requires “surrender to a higher power.” 

Realizing my faith could be a solution to the troubles of criminal justice took an embarrassingly long time.

Meanwhile, incarceration and recidivism are endemic in our society. Each U.S. state puts more people in prison per capita than just about any other democratic country in the world. The latest available U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that in 2005, 83 percent of prisoners released in 30 states were arrested again within nine years, and 44 percent of former inmates let out of prison were arrested within the first year. Given that most crimes go undetected by police, the number of people who are unable to leave a life of crime is even more grim than appears in the recidivism statistics. Even though national crime rates have been at historic lows since 2005 (except for an increase in murders during 2020-21), it does not appear that our criminal justice troubles are going to get better on their own. This might just be the time for divine intervention.

A divine power is what led Joseph Grenny, a New York Times bestselling author of business performance books, to shift gears and dedicate his time and resources to improve the situation of those who have been incarcerated. He has received public acclaim for founding the Other Side Academy, a two-year residential program started in Salt Lake City for people who have hit rock bottom and want to change. The people he invests in are often convicts or have served time, substance abusers or homeless and want to lead a better life. He started this program with a “firm conviction that God wanted it done,” which helped him push past the “tremendous uncertainty” in attempting such a bold program. 

Another innovative mentoring program called Inside-Out Network started by Fred Nelson, a former Lutheran pastor, aims to connect the more than 600,000 people exiting prisons each year with the approximately 300,000 religious institutions in America and provides resources in that last period in jail or prison when inmates need assistance. They also help inmates find health care, education, employment and job training. While there are substantial logistical burdens to expanding this program nationwide, he already has 5,000 inmates registered and 375 churches enrolled.

People of faith are making a difference in criminal justice. They are helping to reduce crime, incarceration and recidivism, and demonstrating how we can all make an impact. The divine tools of the faithful are not only fitting solutions for individual problems, but can also be the basis of solving endemic social problems, recidivism and addiction. A larger institutional focus on using both secular and spiritual tools to aid with these problems could open a new field of scholarly inquiry as well as a solution to inexorable criminal justice problems.  

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.