Growing is the list of “unchangeables” from the perspective of our society.
- Terrorists do not change, we are told. They can never be rehabilitated. Lock them away forever.
- Bullies do not change, we are told. It’s better not to trust them.
- Failed cities and their inhabitants do not change, we are told. That’s just the way that neighborhood is. Let the police clamp down on it as much as they can and keep those people over there.
- Sexual offenders do not change, we are told. Register them. Monitor them. Never give them a break.
- Sexual orientation and gender identity do not change, we are told (expect, that is, to leave heterosexuality in favor of homosexuality). Once you’re born that way (which is a political tautology, not a scientific discovery), you’re stuck there forever.
- Substance abusers are always going to go back to the booze or the dope. It’s just too hard to beat.
- Give a job to an ex-con? You’ve got to be kidding! He’s just going to wind up in prison again.
…and the list goes on. Ours is a people who generally believe in the inevitability of recidivism (relapse into a former bad way of life).
But a lot of the “facts” upon which we base our perspectives may not be factually sound. People speak pretty frequently about the recidivism rate among sexual offenders, for example, leaving the impression that sex offenders are far more likely to re-offend than are criminals of other types. That’s actually not true. Thieves have a higher recidivism rate than sex offenders. So do drug users, prostitutes, and murderers (in addition to the preceding link, here are some supplemental data from one state that corroborate the NIJ statistics). Now, it is true that convicted sex offenders are more likely to commit another sex offense than a former bank robber is likely to commit a sex offense (duh). Yes, the former bank robber, if he commits another crime, is likely to rob a bank again rather than sexually assault someone. But the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported
“Compared to non-sex offenders released from State prison, sex offenders had a lower overall rearrest rate. When rearrests for any type of crime (not just sex crimes) were counted, the study found that 43% (4,163 of 9,691) of the 9,691 released sex offenders were rearrested. The overall rearrest rate for the 262,420 released non-sex offenders was higher, 68% (179,391 of 262,420)” (source).
What about this is important?
I believe that people can change. To put it more accurately, I believe that people can BE changed. I believe that it lies within the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to change anyone. I’m not saying that every change is equally difficult to make. I’m not saying that nobody will ever relapse into significant struggles with past temptations. I’m simply asserting that I take it as a cardinal point of my faith that God can change anyone through the power of the gospel.
I’m a believer in “such were some of you.”
As a true believer in this idea, I find it important to put the facts in front of you. I find it important to note that more than half of convicted sex offenders never face charges again. I find it important to note that nearly one in four drug offenders will never face charges again once they get out of prison. I find it important to note that one in five people arrested for a property crime will never be arrested again.
Why do I find it important to note these things? Because the worst kind of recidivism comes when people acquainted with the gospel go back to a way of thinking that denies it—having escaped the prison of a sinful world into a new creation, they return to thinking about the world the same old way. They lose sight of the idea that Jesus is mighty to save. This is the worst kind of recidivism because of the impact it has upon our churches:
- It leads Christians to do the unthinkable—to say no to the gospel on other peoples’ behalf. “She’s a prostitute. She’s not interested in the gospel. I’m not going to witness to her. He’s a druggie. Let’s skip to the next house and share the gospel over there. He’s a registered sex offender. That kind of person never changes. Don’t knock on that door.” Yet those are just the sorts of people to whom Jesus deliberately went. Force people who are going to reject the gospel to reject it for themselves. Never reject the gospel on behalf of anyone else by proxy.
- It leads Christians to doubt the wrong people (and trust the wrong people). The most dangerous people in your congregation are not the convicted sex offenders you know about; they’re the undiscovered sex offenders you don’t know about. Yes, half of those ex-con sex offenders are going to be arrested again in the future (most of them within the first year of their release), but you know how to keep them out of children’s ministries and it’s going to be hard for them to sneak up on people who already know their past crimes. And statistically speaking, you’ve a greater risk that the ex-con embezzler will steal from your church’s retirees than that the ex-con sex offender will molest your church’s children.
- It leads Christians to support injustices in our criminal justice system. I think that the sex offender registry is a good thing when it alerts us to the forty-year-old man who has been convicted twice for stalking and molesting little boys. I think it is a bad thing when it makes people in a community lump that man into the same category as a twenty-year-old man who slept with his seventeen-year-old girlfriend and was convicted of statutory rape. That’s an injustice to the twenty-year-old, and few are the people willing to plead for him.
Many of the people who have been convicted of offenses like these are not monsters (which does not in the least deny that what they did was monstrous). Can you take a moment to consider that although what you know about the victims of sexual abuse is correct (how badly they’ve been traumatized, how much they need justice, how wrong it is to cover up what has been done to them or to blame them at all for the way that they were assaulted) what you think you know about the perpetrator (that he has a sickness from which he can never be set free, will definitely do something like this again, and must never be allowed to move past his offenses) might be incorrect? Most of these offenders will get out of prison and will stay out of trouble for the rest of their lives. Some of them will be driven out of town after town by people unwilling to look beyond their past crimes and try to find out who they are today.
Be vigilant about protecting your flock from predators. We are. I am. That’s our duty. No one who has been convicted of a crime against children or a sex-based offense is going to be ministering to minors at FBC Farmersville.
But also be vigilant about finding those whom the world has written off as pariahs and untouchables and sharing with them the good news of a God who can change anyone. That’s our duty, too, you know.