Colson Prison Success Inflated By Study, Says Ucla Professor

Supporters of President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative cheered in June when a study came out indicating that graduates of Charles W. Colson's Prison Fellowship program returned to prison at a lower rate than members of a control group.

But now they may have to re-cork the champagne. Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Los Angeles has just demolished the study, showing how its results were inflated by Prison Fellowship.

Analyzing the study in the Aug. 5 edition of the online magazine Slate, Kleiman found that Prison Fellowship started out with 177 volunteer prisoners in its InnerChange program, but that only 75 of them graduated. To be counted as a graduate, an ex-inmate had to get a job. Prison Fellowship counted only these 75 in its study.

"The InnerChange cheerleaders simply ignored the other 102 participants who dropped out, were kicked out or got early parole and didn't finish," wrote Kleiman. "Naturally, the non-graduates did worse than the control group. If you select out the winners, you leave mostly losers."

Kleiman said that when all 177 participants were looked at, the results show that InnerChange participants actually returned to prison at a higher rate than non-participants.

"Overall, the 177 entrants did a little bit worse than the controls," Kleiman observed. "That result ought to discourage InnerChange's advocates, but it doesn't because they have just ignored the failure of the failures and focuses on the success of the successes."

Kleiman called the misinterpretation of the study "one of the oldest tricks in the book" and wrote, "The technical term for this in statistics is selection bias; program managers know it as creaming. Harvard public policy professor Anne Piehl, who reviewed the study before it was published, calls this instance of it cooking the books."

Kleiman contacted John DiIulio, an advocate of the faith-based initiative and former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. DiIulio admitted that the study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, did not produce results favorable to InnerdChange. But DiIulio stuck by his faith in religious programs and cautioned against reading too much into a single study.

"The poor result of InnerChange doesn't mean that no faith-based prison program could work, but it does mean that this one hasn't, at least not yet," concluded Kleiman. "It joins a long line of what seemed like good ideas for reducing recidivism that didn't pan out when subjected to a rigorous evaluadtion. d...[T]hat's why you do evaluations; they tell you things you didn't want to hear. If you're honest, you listen to them. And if you're smart, you don't listen to the political advocates of faith-based this and that when they say they're only asking us to support programs that have been proven to work."

Americans United is currently challenging state support of Colson's InnerChange program at a state prison in Iowa. (See "Colson Prison Blues," March 2003.)

In other news about the faith-based initiative:

Religious Right activists and their congressional allies have insisted that faith-based groups should be permitted to take tax money and still discriminate on the grounds of religion when hiring staff. But not everyone sees this as a compelling issue.

Catholic News Service reported recently that Brother Vincent Reyes, a Capuchin monk, runs soup kitchens in Detroit with 61 employees that serve 60,000 people a month. Reyes has accepted government money in the past, but said he does not consider faith relevant for hiring staff members and does not intend to change his policy.

"We're Franciscans," Reyes said. "We hold very strictly that we only preach with our actions."

Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo has warned churches not to accept money under faith-based initiatives. Speaking in Charlotte, N.C., to a luncheon sponsored by the Baptist Joint Committee's Religious Liberty Council, Campolo said tax funding will hurt churches.

"The system is out to seduce the church, and that is exactly what is going on right now with faith-based initiatives," said Campolo. "It has become the most dangerous seduction that I've ever seen come down the pike."

Campolo, a popular speaker before evangelical Christian groups, said churches should raise private funds to pay for social-service programs.

"The people of God have the resources to do what needs to be done, and we don't need to be looking to the government," he said. "Separation of church and state is crucial if the church is going to influence the government."

During the BJC luncheon, Campolo was presented with the J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award for his advocacy of First Amendment principles.