The Genuine Change Agent
By Don Smarto
For many years I have been perplexed by people's criticism of
the criminal justice system in one specific area. It takes the
form of this basic question: Why doesn't the system change
criminals? Implied is a change for the better, meaning transformation
into a stable citizen and law abiding person. The disapproval
is aimed at Prisons, Probation, and Parole in particular.
we define criminal behavior as sin, the work of regeneration never
has been and never will be the work of any secular government
agency but of the Holy Spirit, and it is the role of the Church
to restore a sinner through Salvation, confession, repentance,
prayer, discipleship, and accountability, which is to say as an
instrument of God's grace.
Do prisons rehabilitate? In the sense of the total
regeneration of the man or woman, NO! A prisoner may encounter
the living God while in prison and be "born again" but
that is separate from the mission of the penal facility. The mandate
of the warden is "safe and secure custody". A safe environment
is debatable. Secure, which means no escape is generally accomplished.
The sentence or punishment of the offender is deprivation of freedom.
Why critize the prison for not rehabilitating the prisoner when
that is not their mandate?
Does parole rehabilitate? The number of released
prisoners divided by the number of parole officers demonstrates
a fundamental problem; there are not enough officers for weekly
contact. It is a monthly check-in process which can conceal all
but the most appalling behavior. It can be guidance but only on
a secular level. A man, who is unemployed and back in his former
neighborhood, will soon return to drug use, gang activity, and
crime without spiritual changes.
Does probation rehabilitate? A probation officer
monitors compliance with the court's rules of probation, which
may include drug testing, curfew, non-association with known felons,
not leaving the state, finding a job, and attending AA meetings.
All of these factors may contribute to stability for a season.
With high case loads of 150 - 200 individuals, it is a transient
and cursory check-in. It does not change the mind or heart regarding
the basic sin problem.
Over a century ago, the Church was the center of the community
and on the forefront of early social work and prison reform. It
was also the leader in health care, education, literacy, and work
In America, the Quakers were the leaders in prison reform. The
Catholic Church had youth (CYO) boxing clubs in urban areas and
facilities like Boys Town and Maryville.
By and large, the Church has abdicated the work of regeneration
of the criminal (sinner) to government. Anyone who has ever worked
with a troubled child knows you have to work with the whole family.
The Church is equipped for ministry to the family, not a facility.
Effective programs and counseling require years of support not
the "silver bullet". There are no simple solutions for
families in crisis.
So today, many of the great universities (like Harvard) that
started as Christian institutions are secular, most hospitals
are profit generating businesses, and social work is often based
on a behavior modification model or basic psychology.
More laws, rules, and regulations will not reform people. A secular
system of rehabilitation will not lead to regeneration. Education
is good but expanding intellectual capacity will not address the
sin problem. Being more "religious" will not create
Jesus said to Nicodemus (John, Chapter 3) "You must be born
again". Paul said (II Cor., Chapter 5) we become a "new
creation" in Christ. We are told in Ephesians 2 we are "dead
in trespasses and sins". Look at the word REGENERATION.
The prefix re is Latin for "again". The Latin generare
from the Greek genesis means "to bring into being" which
is why the first book of the Bible is Genesis. Whether by creation,
by natural birth, or spiritual birth, all sinners require a new
The root of crime is rebellion, which is sin. The only solution
to the sin problem is regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Prisons may get an offender's attention. Parole may add accountability.
Probation may lend structure, but no government agency can generate
spiritual life. They may be helpful to the offender, but a fallen
man is dead and they must pass from death to life, from Satan
to God to achieve true regeneration. How can criminals change
to law abiding citizens? The Church has the answer - go to them.