A Reform Empire Built on Biased Research:
Academics, Contractors, and Reentry Profiteering
1. Justice Reinvestment Initiative
2. Texas Reformers: Byron Johnson and Prison Fellowship Ministries
3. The Manhattan Institute and Public/Private Ventures
4. Florida's Operation New Hope and Ready4Work
5. Prison Entrepreneurship Program
The broader impact of Charles Koch’s criminal justice reform movement can be seen most clearly by following the money from actual state and federal reforms to the contractors benefiting from them.
Their reform initiatives, often called “Smart Justice,” have been developed and promoted by ALEC and their State Policy Network of think tanks. They promote the expansion of public funding for private reentry services.
In a 2015 interview, Koch claimed that his donor network was raising $889 million to spend during the 2016 election, and yet only $300 million would be spent on direct electoral politics. He told USA Today that:
"A good part of the rest is education and research," Koch said, ticking off university grants and other projects he is supporting, including an overhaul of the criminal justice system.
What would an "overhaul" of the criminal justice system look like if it were carried out by Koch's political network?
One can look as far as the last time Koch and ALEC overhauled the criminal justice system, when they helped profiteers build the prison industrial complex and a draconian tough on crime culture.
The kinds of reforms these groups are currently promoting include the ability of private reentry contractors to be paid based on a program's projected cost savings to the state, as determined by privately funded recidivism research.
For decades, this research has shown a pattern of flawed experimental design that has allowed contractors like Prison Fellowship Ministries, Operation New Hope, and the Prison Entrepreneurship Project to inflate and misrepresent recidivism reduction. This allows them to drastically inflate their projected cost savings and systematically gain access to federal and state funding.
This should not be surprising, given that this network of organizations is also responsible for using flawed, corporate funded research to propagate climate change denial and oppose the transition away from fossil fuels.
Justice Reinvestment Initiative
For example the 2010 Justice Reinvestment Initiative, is a public-private partnership between the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Pew Charitable Trusts, the Urban Institute, and others. JRI seeks to restructure corrections funding toward performance funding, or “evidence-based” solutions.
BJA director Denise E. O’Donnell describes using federal funding to restructure state and local funding systems, “[the] JRI model emphasizes support for implementation and the achievement of long-term justice system realignment. Jurisdictions then reinvest the cost savings into high-performing initiatives that make communities safer.”
There are two ways that JRI invests funding, including funding based on projected cost savings:
states have planned to reinvest more than $398 million in public safety initiatives. To date, reinvestment has taken two forms: reinvestment of tangible savings and upfront investment.
Reinvestment of tangible savings occurs when states track avoided justice spending and reinvest those savings. The reinvestment of actual savings requires a waiting period for savings to be realized before investment in other programs can occur.
Upfront investment in public safety occurs when states fund programs on the basis of projected future savings. This strategy addresses the time lag between policy enactment and realization of savings. (Urban Institute, 2014)
For states, the JRI model requires all branches of government to formally request assistance from the BJA while creating a working group made up of elected officials, reformers, and corrections and law enforcement officials. These working groups make policy recommendations that allow the state to open contractor's access to state and federal "justice reinvestment" funding.
In many states, ALEC and Right on Crime groups are working in tandem with lawmakers to open access to JRI funding. In addition, the state level reforms coming out JRI working groups is based on ALEC's reforms.
According to ALEC, a JRI bipartisan working group in Georgia, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform,
has produced a set of policy recommendations which align with ALEC model policies . . .Key elements of the recommendations align with a framework of policy that was the product of a Corrections and Reentry Working Group at ALEC. (ALEC Press Release, 2012)
This working group was originally part of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force, best known for their adoption of Stand Your Ground and Voter ID laws. Other members of this taskforce include the American Bail Coalition and private prison Corrections Corporation of America.
Other recent states include Illinois, where the Koch backed Governor, Bruce Rauner, created the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform within the first month of his administration. Rauner also attended Koch's secretive 2017 donor seminar.
TEXAS's InnerChange initiative:
Prison Fellowship Ministries and Byron Johnson
Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) was founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson, best known as Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man.” Colson was the first in Nixon's administration to go to prison for Watergate, where he founded PFM.
In 1997 Colson launched a faith-based reentry program, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, that eventually garnered millions in state and federal funding. The initial program involved making an "InnerChange" wing of an existing Texas prison through a public/private partnership between Prison Fellowship Ministries and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Inmates must volunteer for the program and be classified at a minimum-security custody level. Once selected, the inmates go through a three-phase program involving 16 to 18 months of in-prison biblical programming and 6 to 12 months of aftercare while on parole. (Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, 2002, pg 4)
With the help of then Texas Governor George W. Bush, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice agreed to pay all operation costs, along with a $1.5 million state appropriation to PFM.
A key figure behind InnerChange's implementation was the director of Lamar University’s Center for Justice Research and Education, Dr. Byron Johnson. According to his CV, he was paid $128,800 by the John Templeton Foundation between 1995 and 1996 to research recidivism in a Brazilian prison run by Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Johnson's 1996 report claimed that “inmates who were most active in Bible studies were significantly less likely to be rearrested during the follow-up period. ”
In September 1996, Johnson gave expert testimony to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and in January of 1997, Johnson was paid $163,968 by Prison Fellowship Ministries to study their Texas InnerChange program. He went on to give expert testimony to the Texas corrections officials 3 more times that year. Between 1995 and 2001 Johnson was paid at least $911,279 to produce research on InnerChange, $782,479 directly from Prison Fellowship Ministries. These programs quickly spread to Minnesota, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa (which Johnson was also paid to study).
In Iowa alone, InnerChange secured at least $2,217,416 in state appropriations before a 2006 lawsuit filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State demonstrated that publicly funding the overtly religious programs was unconstitutional. (Reformers in states like Florida have since adapted to the constitutionality of "faith-based" reentry by simply calling them "faith and character based" programs.)
While being contracted by PFM and the Templeton foundation, Dr. Byron Johnson was also the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance's Center for Justice Research and Education (1994-1997) in Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs.
In June 2003, Byron Johnson accompanied Chuck Colson to the Bush White House with the findings of his InnerChange report “A Preliminary Evaluation of a Faith-Based Prison Program.”
The press release published by Prison Fellowship Ministries claimed that "Univ. of Pennsylvania Study Shows Inmates Who Graduate From Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative are Less Likely to Return to Incarceration," and that Texas InnerChange inmates were “50% less likely to be rearrested” and “60% less likely to be re-incarcerated.”
That same summer, UCLA professor Mark Kleiman examined Johnson’s paper, observing that, despite the claims being made, Johnson’s findings actually showed no effect of participating in IFI.
The headline was based on an artful subtlety within Johnson's paper. Rather than comparing the recidivism of IFI participants with a control group, the recidivism rates being compared were those of a small and selectively chosen subgroup of "IFI graduates.” Kleiman observed that:
when you look carefully at the Penn study, it's clear that the program didn't work. The InnerChange participants did somewhat worse than the controls: They were slightly more likely to be rearrested and noticeably more likely (24 percent versus 20 percent) to be reimprisoned. . .
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." . .
InnerChange started with 177 volunteer prisoners but only 75 of them "graduated." Graduation involved sticking with the program, not only in prison but after release. No one counted as a graduate, for example, unless he got a job. Naturally, the graduates did better than the control group. Anything that selects out from a group of ex-inmates those who hold jobs is going to look like a miracle cure
This is called "selection bias," and the conclusions of such studies are tainted by throwing out data points that don't support the success of the program. Johnson and White House officials declined press inquiries regarding Kleiman’s report (Houston Press, 2003).
In 2011 conservative legal scholar Alexander Volokh published a survey of 23 similar studies on faith-based recidivism reduction (including Johnson’s original 1996 study), noting that they nearly all suffered from similar selection biasing.
The Manhattan Institute and Public/Private Ventures
As early as 1999, Byron Johnson appears to have been involved in a larger effort to build a national faith based reentry movement with the help of the Manhattan Institute.
The Manhattan Institute is an associate member of the State Policy Network and ALEC affiliate, receiving at least $3,962,270 from Koch foundations and DonorsTrust/Donors Capital Fund.
In 1999, the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Civic Innovation held a panel discussion called “Social Scientists Agree: Religious Belief Reduces Crime,” consisting of Director of Manhattan’s Center for Civic Innovation, Dr. John DiIulio, Gary Walker, President of Public/Private Ventures, David Larson, M.D., and Dr. Byron Johnson. A Manhattan Institute newsletter recounts:
Walker is working on a pilot project with Dr. DiIulio and Rev. Eugene Rivers to implement a faith-based mentoring system in 10 cities around the country. But the project faces some daunting challenges, as Mr. Walker sees it. Can faith-based mentoring, which usually works on a small-scale, informal basis, be successfully bureaucratized, even by private organizations? And can faith-based mentoring overcome resistance from government and philanthropic funders in order to grow and thrive?
The next year, Johnson became a senior fellow at the Manhattan institute, and took over for DiIulio as Director of Manhattan’s "Jeremiah Project."
DiIulio, the tough on crime fear-monger responsible for the "juvenile super-predator" theory. He served as a board member and senior counsel of Public/Private Ventures before founding the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (CRRUCS).
In 2001, when DiIulio left to serve as President Bush’s Director of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Byron Johnson took over as CRRUCS director, with the help of $2,600,000 from the Pew Charitable Trust.
This is where Johnson (and aforementioned Manhattan panel member, David Larson) published the 2003 InnerChange report that was presented to the Bush White House.
Despite the fact that Byron Johnson's CV shows $282,149 from Prison Fellowship Ministries for “Evaluating Texas’ Values-Based Prison,” his paper omits any mention of funding from Prison Fellowship Ministries.
The report does however acknowledge financial support from Pew and the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation.
UNDER-REPORTed Recidivism= inflated Cost Savings
The same year that Johnson and Colson met with President Bush about InnerChange, the White House launched a national faith-based reentry program called Ready4Work. It was part of a $27 million public/private faith-based initiative between the Department of Labor ($10 million), the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Public/Private Ventures (P/PV).
During this time (2003-2004), Byron Johnson served as a Senior Research Adviser to Public/Private Ventures, working on a “Prisoner Reentry and Ready4Work Initiative.” Ready4Work (R4W) was a “national demonstration project managed by Public/Private Ventures that aims to reduce recidivism, and, thereby, redress the personal and societal costs that recidivism poses.” The program distributed funding to eleven very different private reentry programs around the country, seven of which were faith based (DOL, 2008, pg 6). The Texas recipient was an InnerChange facility. In 2005, the Department of Labor pitched in another $20 million to thirty faith and community based organizations as the “Prisoner Reentry Initiative.”
Ready4Work, operating to this day, appears to continue the trend of using misleading recidivism numbers to project large cost savings.
The program is said to be modeled in part after a pilot program in Jacksonville Florida called Operation New Hope (ONH), a project of “bullish” real estate developer Kevin Gay. Gay received $1 million of the initial $10 million Ready4Work grant for ONH in Florida.
Ready4Work’s 2008 final report compared recidivism with Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data from prisoners released in 1994. One major methodological shortcoming was the total lack of meaningful comparison groups. The BJS data spanned 15 states, 8 of which were among the 11 R4W states. More importantly, the R4W recidivism data only counted “in-state” recidivism, while the inclusion of “out-of-state” recidivism in the BJS data accounted for 7.6% of recorded recidivism (pg 6). A final table sums up their results (pg 35) including the comparison of Ready4Work’s 3-year rearrest rates, 57%, to the national number 67.5%. The report acknowledged that “these figures are not directly comparable,” only that they “provide the best point of comparison under which R4W recidivism levels can be interpreted.” The researchers optimistically conclude “The fact that R4W recidivism rates are not higher than the BJS rate suggests the program shows promise.”
A 2006 third party evaluation of the R4W recidivism data quality reported that the programs relied almost entirely on self-reporting, and that “there was little data in the case files concerning recidivism.” The third party study was only able to access actual recidivism data because Public/Private Ventures “had negotiated access to state files” (pg 6). It was ultimately found that sites were unable to account for 51% of their clients’ recidivism statuses.
The results of the R4W final report to the Department of Labor in 2008 (pg 35) appear to have been misquoted almost immediately in federal, state, and media.
A subsequent brief by the White House claimed that “only 2.5 percent of Ready4Work participants have been re-incarcerated in state institutions within 6 months of release.” In fact, the R4W report found the 6-month re-incarceration rate was not 2.5%, but 3.7% (2.5% was actually the rate reconvicted for violent crime within 6-months). The White House statement also claims that R4W one year recidivism rates were “44 percent lower than the 10.4 percent national rate.” Contrary to this claim, the Department of Labor report compares the national rate 10.4% to R4W’s 8.7% (only 16 percent lower).
With the White House funding ending, ONH sought local and state support. In a slide presented to a City of Jacksonville subcommittee, January 28, 2008, Kevin Gay claimed that Operation New Hope had a “5% recidivism rate v.s. the national average 67%.” (pg 26), and used that rate to project drastic savings:
[with] a local recidivism rate of 54 percent, [...] participants could be expected to be re-incarcerated within three years at a cost of $6,011,550. However, with the ONH program of success at maintaining a five percent re-incarceration rate [...] the program could save the state over $5,454,925 ($6,011,550- $556,625) annually.
If Gay's 5% claim is referencing the 2008 R4W report, he is mistaken. There is not a single digit 3-year recidivism rate. If he is referencing data collected by ONH in Jacksonville, then a single digit figure is most likely the result of data that, while largely missing, was also “almost entirely self-attested” according to the 2006 data quality report.
Regardless, Jacksonville has contracted at least $452,148 to ONH for Ready4Work, and since 2012, the Florida Department of Corrections has contracted with ONH for at least $6,275,000. Florida’s 2015 budget set aside $1,225,000 recurring for Operation New Hope to perform Ready4Work services.
While President Obama was campaigning in Jacksonville in 2008, Kevin Gay reportedly asked him, “What if I told you I could save you $30 billion in your first year of office?” citing Ready4Work’s alleged 5% recidivism rate. President Obama named Gay to his transition team on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Council.
ONH has since transformed into a strange real estate development project, where prison/reentry workers build houses that ONH then sells.
Other federal legislation has opened increasing amounts of public money to private reentry contractors. The Second Chance Act, signed in 2008, has set aside over $250 million to fund state or private reentry services as of 2013. Florida’s Operation New Hope now receives funding through the Second Chance program.
In federal testimony support the Second Chance Act, Prison Fellowship Ministries’ Pat Nolan cited Byron Johnson’s research. Nolan, a former Tough on Crime legislator briefly imprisoned for racketeering, has also served as the Private Sector Chair of ALEC’s Corrections and Reentry workgroup alongside Public Sector Chair Texas legislator Rep. Jerry Madden. Both are central figures in Right on Crime. Prison Fellowship Ministries is also listed as a Second Chance Partner on the Bureau of Justice Assistance website.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program
With these efforts ramping up, the Koch network is signaling pretty heavily about which reentry programs they are excited about.
In October of 2017, Koch seminar attendee and President of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, used the Prison Entrepreneurship Program as his headline example of "escaping poverty through entrepreneurship."
In a 2016 Charles Koch Institute blog, two reentry providers are lauded by name; "Kevin Gay, CEO of Operation New Hope, and Bert Smith, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program":
Operation New Hope’s Ready4Work program in Florida provides a four-to-six-week-long course to those recently released from incarceration that offers mentorship and provides job training while helping program participants find placement . . . The Prison Entrepreneurship Program begins earlier, while participants are still incarcerated. The program’s in-prison education teaches leadership and business skills through college-level courses and graduate school case studies. . . . With 100 percent of graduates employed within 90 days of release, and 90 percent still employed after one year, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s recidivism rate is a startlingly low 7 percent. (Charles Koch Institute blog, 2016)
In 2015, the Koch Institute released a short documentary about the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). The video description reads:
Nearly seven million people are in prison or on parole in the United States. Two-thirds of inmates released from prison remain unemployed after a year. And two-thirds will be re-arrested within three years of release. With numbers like that, it’s clear that the collateral consequences of incarceration, like difficulty finding employment, deserve attention, action, and solutions.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which helps ex-offenders create their own businesses, shows how community and non-profit organizations are sometimes best positioned to offer these solutions. (CKI Youtube, 2015)
In the video, PEP's Bryan Kelley described a recidivism study:
Baylor did a study a few years ago on nine programs within Texas. Three of them actually increased recidivism. (video at 2:10)
The table shown in the video is page 14 of Byron Johnson's 2015 report, which praises the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.
Immediately following this shot of Johnson's study, PEP's Natalie Baker describes their methodology and appears to inadvertently reveal clear evidence of the exact same selection bias present in programs carried out by Byron Johnson and others.
What's great about our program is, we have hand chosen guys who want something better for themselves. They know that they're capable of bigger things. (video at 2:20)
On PEP's website, they feature the "Baylor Study" prominently (www.pep.org/baylor-study/).
Johnson's study describes the selection methodology behind PEP's program (housed inside a Geo Group prison):
It is a selective program and, with the support of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, recruits from over 60 men’s correctional facilities across the state. Candidates passing through PEP’s initial screening are transferred by TDCJ at PEP’s request to the Cleveland Correctional Center, a 520-bed prison operated by Geo Group, in Cleveland, Texas, where PEP provides all of its in-prison programming. In addition, PEP provides extensive post-release services (including job development, transitional housing, and continuing education) in Houston and Dallas, communities to which approximately 90% of PEP’s graduates are released. (PEP Baylor Study)
According to Baylor University, who offer's PEP graduates a "Certificate in Entrepreneurship," every year "more than 5,000 inmates apply to be a part of PEP - but only the top 5 percent are selected for this elite program."
CEO Bert Smith describes the course load:
Our graduates invest over 1,000 hours of work into our six-month Business Plan Competition class, which incorporates a college-level curriculum supplemented by Harvard MBA cases, the AP Writing Stylebook, Toastmasters, an employment workshop and a financial literacy course (Baylor Press Release, 2013)
In an interview with the Acton Institute, the issue of using PEP "graduates" as the experimental group becomes a bit more clear. The Acton interviewer asks a:
40-year-old inmate from South Texas about the ones that drop out, a topic I haven’t seen addressed in any of the media coverage or PEP testimonials. “A lot of people do leave the program,” he confides. “They simply can’t handle the homework, and there is a lot of after hours work and preparation they are not willing to embrace.” The business plan competition requires 1,000 hours of classroom time over six months. That works out to several hours of homework per night. Inmates study college textbooks and read novels like Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (Religion & Liberty, 2015) (Emphasis added)
We can now see the problems with PEP's reporting. They only compare the graduates of their intensive college level courses. In order to make a meaningful comparison to the control group, they would have to include the recidivism of the drop-outs.
Again, despite the demonstrable selection bias explained in Johnson's own paper, his Executive Summary is strangely defensive:
Control Group Study: No Selection Bias
PEP's graduates are significantly less likely to return to prison than the control group of inmates who were selected for PEP but who did not participate in its programs. This confirms the positive impact of PEP's intervention rather than the influence of its selection process. (PEP Baylor Exec. Summary)
While it would be refreshing to see Johnson's study pay special attention to control for selection bias, the report never mentions it once. The only place the word "bias" appears at all is in the one page executive summary.
PEP's 2016 annual report shows some completion rates are as low as 53%.
PEP uses their single digit recidivism numbers, and many other factors, to project an overwhelming cost savings to the state. In very clear business terms, Byron Johnson's PEP study claims that the Return on Investment from state dollars is 340% after five years.
This figure is not only based on the questionable 7% recidivism rate, but it adds in a cornucopia of other economic "impacts" and "gains" to pad their numbers:
The first area of economic impact we evaluate includes savings related to reduced recidivism. . .A second area of economic impact we calculate quantifies gains associated with increased tax revenue generation. . . A third area of economic impact that PEP data help us evaluate includes economic gains from increased child support payments. . . The final area of economic impact we evaluate calculates savings from reduced public assistance costs. Based on PEP graduates’ employment rates, the estimated number of PEP graduates on public assistance, and studies that quantify the average annual benefits individuals receive from food stamps and TANF, we estimate the annual savings that avoided recidivism has on public assistance costs. (PEP Baylor Study, pg 30)
PEP goes For profit, Like Operation new hope
Another alarming aspect of PEP is the development of its for profit subsidiary, Communitas Ventures, owned by PEP's board chair Mike Humphrey.
In 2013, Communitas Auto Group LLC was launched as "an independent, for-profit company formed by PEP to become the exclusive master franchisee for Auto-Lab Complete Car Centers for the State of Texas."
The announcement describes how:
PEP's strategic objectives include harnessing capitalism o create high quality business and career opportunities for its graduates, a wider variety of engagement opportunities for our supporters and sources of sustainable revenue to support PEP's core programs. . . While qualified graduates of PEP's rigorous, values-based entrepreneurship program will be eligible for jobs created by these new stores, the primary purpose of CAG is to operate as a successful commercial business, thereby providing not only quality opportunities for graduates, but significant revenue stream to its owners, including PEP. (PEP CAG FAQ)
Other for-profits are lining up behind PEP. The corrections communications contractor, SECURUS, announced at 5 year funding commitment and "exclusive agreement" to expand PEP's reentry programs. Securus' exploitative practices have built massive profits on the backs of inmates and their families, as documented by the Prison Policy Initiative in 2015.