My column in the current issue of WORLD Magazine asks whether faith-based prison programs work to make it less likely that ex-prisoners will commit new crimes and end up back in prison. I report on one critic of such programs, Alexander Volokh, who says studies showing program effectiveness are irrelevant because of “selection bias.” That’s what occurs whenever a study divides “participants into those who stayed with the program and those who were discharged, whether for lack of participation, inappropriate conduct, or escape.”
Two thoughts on this: First, Volokh himself recognizes that without such “bias” we will be unable to measure how a program helps those who sincerely take part: “There is always a problem with insincere inmates who take advantage of religious programs to ‘gain protection,’ ‘meet other inmates,’ ‘interact with volunteers,’ and ‘gain access to prison resources,’ quite apart from any desire to reform.” (See “Non-Christians choose Christian prison programs.”)
Second, as Baylor professor Byron Johnson, an exceptionally clear-headed social scientist, pointed out when we discussed the matter, “The only way to totally eliminate selection bias is by utilizing a true classical experimental design—these studies randomly assign individuals into treatment and control groups. I’d love to do such a study with a faith-based program, but, of course, we cannot randomly assign individuals into a faith-based program—they must participate voluntarily. Therein lies the real problem. Only the results of a true experiment would apparently satisfy Volokh and other critics, and that won’t happen.”
The bias that does need criticizing is the bias against Christian programs that animates academia—with Baylor’s Institute of Studies of Religion (which Johnson directs) a notable exception. Many analysts have shown how Christian programs succeed in social services and poverty fighting where secularists fail, and to me it’s remarkable even when they hold their own, because the nature of Christianity is that it appeals most to the humble who have good reason for humility. Those who are the most successful by worldly standards are often less likely to rely on Christ than those who feel deeply a desperate need for Him.