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Pepperdine Center for Faith and the Common Good Publishes Research on the Impact of Religiosity on the Incarcerated

Byron Johnson, the executive director of Pepperdine’s Center for Faith and the Common Good

In a new study released this May, Byron Johnson, the executive director of Pepperdine’s Center for Faith and the Common Good, and Grant Duwe, the director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, explore how the religion of an incarcerated person can affect how they respond to correctional programming. Applying the risk-needs-responsivity (RNR) model—the guiding framework when developing correctional programming—to a survey of more than 2,000 inmates in Minnesota, Johnson and Duwe found that greater religiosity among those incarcerated was linked to less misconduct and reoffending, but only for those who had less social support and more positive social identities. 

“Research confirms that religion can be a critical factor in helping prisoners experience an authentic identity transformation,” says Johnson. “This transformation helps inmates to respond favorably to rehabilitative programs as well as aiding them in making positive and prosocial choices—like participation in acts of service to others.”

A relatively unexplored area of research, the study is one of the first to examine the role of religiosity within the context of the RNR model. According to the risk-needs-responsivity principles, the risk principle holds that interventions should be targeted toward higher-risk individuals, with the most intensive programs being reserved for those with the highest risk of reoffending; the needs principle suggests that programs must address individual characteristics that are related to criminal behavior; and the responsivity principle indicates that interventions must account for factors that might influence the effectiveness of programming. 

While specific responsivity factors—personal characteristics that affect an individual’s potential to respond to treatment goals—such as motivation, anxiety, learning discrepancies, language, transportation, gender, and culture may play a part in inmates’ criminal behavior, Johnson and Duwe’s research suggests that religious faith and spirituality should also be considered, as inmates have recorded experiencing positive effects when offered support by a faith community. And while more research is needed to better understand the association between religiosity and correctional program participation, assessing religiosity could help identify individuals who may have an interest in faith-based interventions. Results further suggest that evaluating religiosity could, when paired with identity and social support assessments, potentially provide better risk-related outcomes and help to identify the resources needed to prevent an individual from reoffending.

Established in March 2022, the Center for Faith and the Common Good was formed by co-executive directors president Jim Gash (JD '93) and Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, to conduct scholarly investigations of how faith and religion impact human flourishing. Inspired by Gash and Johnson’s shared passion for improving prison conditions and recidivism, the center’s mission is to integrate key components of Johnson's expansive research on the value of faith-based organizations, criminal justice, and human flourishing while contributing to further studies and wider societal impact. In addition, the center partners with faculty scholars from Pepperdine, Baylor, and other interested universities as they pursue collaborative research focused on social and behavioral services.

For more information on Johnson and Duwe’s research, read their latest publication, “Why correctional agencies should consider the religion of the incarcerated in the effectiveness of their programs.” Visit the Center for Faith and the Common Good website for the latest and upcoming research.