Intermediaries: The Missing Link in Prisoner Reentry (by Dr. Byron Johnson)
It is a fact that serious social problems like prisoner reentry cannot be solved through faith-based efforts alone. It is likewise true that government has been unable to address the diverse needs faced by ex-prisoners transitioning back to society. Unfortunately, these two realities are not always obvious to those who believe the solution is simply more religion or more government. What cannot be denied is that faith-based organizations (FBOs) are already located in our nation’s poorest and most distressed communities where most former prisoners will return after leaving prison. Houses of worship and FBOs are widely acknowledged to be some of the last organizations that have not abandoned many of our most disadvantaged communities.
Unfortunately, both sacred and secular groups tend to overlook a profoundly important point — collaboration between these two groups may well extend the resources necessary and available to help distressed communities. The problem is that government and religious organizations do not have an outstanding record for forging partnerships with another. Mutual distrust between sacred and secular entities has hampered our ability to provide a holistic approach to social problems like crime and poverty. In order for social service delivery systems to be effective they must provide comprehensive strategies that draw upon all available community resources, including the largely untapped resources of churches and other FBOs. In the face of current economic and budget crises, there is a need to develop and implement comprehensive crime-fighting efforts. These strategies target jobs, housing, transportation, life skills, mentoring, and spiritual transformation. Our only real hope for providing holistic interventions necessary to achieve effective results is to encourage (rather than discourage) partnerships among secular and sacred groups. But how do we make these uncomfortable partnerships happen?
The Need for Intermediary Organizations
Without intermediary organizations to bridge the gap between disadvantaged populations and the resources they need, ex-prisoners will likely remain beyond effective reach and service. Intermediaries are well-networked organizations that can play a key role in coordinating local resources and the efforts of fragmented community and faith-based organizations. Too often small faith-based groups operate in isolation from each other and are not able to build or sustain capacity. Many faith-based ministries are run by people with great hearts, but they often lack the tools and connections necessary to be effective. This is where intermediaries can be catalytic in facilitating the recruitment of large numbers of skilled and trained volunteers, while helping to develop private and public partnerships in order to confront an array of social problems from youth violence to prisoner reentry.
Moreover, intermediaries are much better suited to interact with governmental entities while drawing upon the substantial human capital of volunteers, as well as the social and spiritual capital of individuals and organizations in the private sector. For example, developing a truly comprehensive prisoner reentry plan is difficult because there are so many different challenges complicating an ex-prisoner’s ability to successfully transition back to society. Focusing on housing without giving proper consideration to employment of ex-prisoners will likely be unsuccessful. Likewise, concentrating on transportation without giving consideration to mentoring and other social supports is shortsighted. Any comprehensive prisoner reentry plan must be able to coordinate all the major obstacles to successful reentry.
In recent years the federal government has used intermediaries to help faith- and community-based organizations build capacity, strengthen programs, and improve the delivery of social services. In this way, intermediaries are strategic in building bridges and alliances in order to address immense social problems. Perhaps the best recent example is the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF), established by Congress in 2002, which provides funds to be distributed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to intermediary organizations to provide training, technical and financial assistance to faith- and community-based organizations.
The role of faith- and community-based intermediaries in social service provision is still relatively new and underdeveloped. This is unfortunate since intermediary organizations may be the key element in building models that are intentional about working with volunteers, especially volunteers who come from religious congregations. Intermediaries can serve many important roles by providing (1) management and oversight to groups and organizations; (2) technical assistance to agencies, groups, and ministries; (3) ongoing training to strengthen capacity and sustainability; and (4) structure and tools necessary to make partnering groups accountable for achieving outcomes (e.g., job training, mentoring, or crime reduction). It is not an exaggeration to suggest that intermediaries can be key in “leveling the playing field” by assisting organizations in being more productive. This is especially true for undersized and underfunded organizations that tend to have relatively less management, reporting, and fiscal capacity, but are anxious nevertheless to partner with other programs.
In this way, intermediaries serve as a bridge – putting their administrative and fiscal strengths at the service of small organizations – absorbing much of the load of government duties and providing training, technical assistance, and encouragement to the sub-organizations so that they can successful. Intermediaries enhance as well as make possible more extensive involvement and access to other social services providers and agencies. This is especially true of organizations that are too small or too limited in capacity, to readily partner with government on their own. For any small organization, the scale and bureaucracy of government can be daunting. On the other hand, intermediaries tend to have a solid community reputation and they are private not government, and like Cornerstone Assistance Network of Central Texas, they may be faith-based themselves. Intermediaries often serve as a go-between between government and faith- based organizations. Some faith-based organizations are very comfortable working with public programs and their restrictions. Others, though, are leery, put off by secular talk, and may find the absence of religious symbols and artifacts as a sign of hostility to religion.
Effective intermediaries can help to build the capacity of faith and community-based organizations and thus improve the likelihood they will be strong partners in coordinated collaborations. In this way, intermediaries can help small faith-based to develop much needed program skills such as case management, data collection, reporting of outcomes, and more. Intermediaries serve many important roles including management and oversight to groups and organizations that need accountability. Additionally, through ongoing technical assistance to agencies, groups, and ministries, intermediaries have the potential to improve the effectiveness of these groups. Further, intermediaries have the ability to provide training to strengthen the capacity and sustainability of these faith-based and community organizations. Finally, intermediaries can provide structure and tools necessary to facilitate connecting these much needed partnerships and networks for achieving optimal outcomes. Faith-based approaches are important in addressing social problems, but without intermediaries it is unlikely FBOs will realize their full potential.
Economists are helping us understand that the real costs and impact of crime are significantly higher than previously understood. Economists are also correct to suggest that programs or interventions designed to reduce crime, if found to be effective, can save taxpayers a great deal of money. From a taxpayer perspective, therefore, it is highly significant that faith-based approaches are beginning to show promise when it comes to the issue of effectiveness. Moreover, since so much of the work is completed by faith-motivated volunteers, these approaches are remarkably cost-effective. Congregations, more than any other institution in America are volunteer-rich organizations able to leverage large numbers of talented people to feed these faith-based efforts. Scholarly research now confirms that faith-based approaches are making a difference in confronting difficult to solve social problems from delinquency, crime, offender reform, and prisoner reentry. Intermediary organizations hold the key to multiplying these secular and sacred collaborations that will ultimately facilitate successful prisoner reentry, promote public safety, and reduce costs to taxpayers.
Byron Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and author of More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How it Could Matter More. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Cornerstone Assistance Network Central Texas.