The separation of church and state is codified in the First Amendment. State support of faith-based organizations designed to reduce recidivism rates was permitted when President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act in 2007. The Second Change Act allowed federal funds to be used for reentry programs, including faith-based reentry programs. As expected, the legislation could theoretically pose some First Amendment issues given that it involves federal support for programs run by religious institutions, but given that members of the clergy are already a presence in most prisons, there has been muted debate on the topic. When evaluating the utility of such programs two central questions may be asked: do such reentry programs 'work' and if so, is the faith-based component sufficiently necessary to justify the potential blurring of the line between church and state, as articulated in the Establishment Clause of the Constitution?
Although federal support of religiously-affiliated programs may need to be cautious, overall the indication is that faith-based programs are equally helpful as secular programs in preventing recidivism. Furthermore, given the cash-strapped resources of many state prison systems, the use of all available programming, regardless of whether it is religiously-based or not, seems to provide greater benefits than no availability of such services at all. Thus these programs may be cautiously recommended, even though they must provide counseling and other forms of support to be truly effective -- versus merely relying upon faith and not using empirically-tested methods to deal with important issues such as substance abuse and a lack of education and critical job skills.
Faith-based vs. secular prisoner reentry programs: Statistical evidence
As everyone knows who has seen films such as Dead Man Walking, faith-based initiatives have long been incorporated into the prison system and showing a commitment to one's religion is often taken into consideration by parole boards when contemplating a prisoner's release. Reentry programs (versus standard parole) have become increasingly popular as a way of easing a prisoner's transition into the community. Thus faith-based reentry programs seem to be a natural extension of this existing association.
In terms of their success rates, reentry programs have shown promise, statistically speaking in reducing recidivism and some have a substantive faith-based component. For example, the Minnesota Department of Corrections assessed the InnerChange Freedom Initiative involving 732 offenders released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2009. Participation decreased the risk for rearrests by 26%; by 35% for reconviction; and by 4% for a new offense (An outcome exploration of the InnerChange Initiative, 2012, Minnesota Department of Corrections).
The specific design of the InnerChange was that of a thirty-month long transitional program from prison to full release and is based upon, according to its stated emphasis, "the life and teaching of Jesus Christ" although "inmates do not have to be Christian to apply to, or participate in, the program" (An outcome exploration of the InnerChange Initiative, 2012, Minnesota Department of Corrections). While faith is a very important part of the program, it is not the sole cornerstone of InnerChange and non-Christians can still benefit from it, nor do prisoners have to convert to 'graduate.'
The program also offers training in basic life skills and educational opportunities as well as uses CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques to enable the participants to utilize more effective cognitive coping mechanisms. Instead of reacting instantaneously with anger or violence, or viewing themselves as lacking any choices other than criminal behaviors, CBT encourages rational observations of one's thought processes and framing life decisions in a more productive fashion. It also offers substance abuse education as well as education in religious and moral development. The program connects prisoners with mentors in the community after they are released, as well as mentors them before being released.
The program evaluation concluded that InnerChange was effective because its emphasis was not solely upon faith but included critical components which have been shown in previous studies of reentry programs to be effective, such as continuous supportive mentorship. The program was flexible enough to provide options even for non-Christians to use program resources in a nondenominational fashion. However, the question arises if faith-based programs are substantively better than non-faith-based programs? Here, the evidence is less clear.