Church
Nonviolent offenders in one small Alabama town are being offered a choice of church or jail. Image: Flickr / mrseb / CC-BY-NA

A new program called Operation Restore Our Community is kicking off in Alabama next week. In the small town of Bay Minette, misdemeanor offenders will be given a choice of punishment. Either jail time or one year of attending church on Sundays.

Operation Restore Our Community

The one city judge in Bay Minette, Ala., has decided to start a new program. More than 50 churches have signed up for his Operation Restore Our Community program. The program will give misdemeanor non-violent offenders a choice of their punishment. The offenders can be sentenced to jail and fines, or they can choose to go to church every Sunday for a full year. Offenders will be required to check in with both the pastor and the police every Sunday, and if they miss any church their case will be reconsidered. If the year of church attendance is completed, the case is dismissed.

Solid statistical basis

Operation Restore Our Community has a statistical basis. Criminals and offenders who have strong connections to the community are much less likely to re-offend in the future, according to studies. Many of these studies consider church attendance part of a full-scale “community involvement” metric. Most of these studies also consider only Jeudo-Christian church attendance, rather than a full range of religious options.

Cost savings a consideration

The Bay Minette Police Chief has voiced his support for the Operation Restore Our Community program. The city is strapped for cash, and the program has the potential to reduce municipal costs. It costs an average of $75 per day, per inmate to keep people in jail. That means a one-year prison sentence would cost the city or state $27,000; the church-attendance program will likely cost much less, as it requires only a weekly check-in with officials.

Concerns about First Amendment

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says “no religious doctrine shall be established by law,” which has long been interpreted to mean church and state should be separated. Civil rights advocates have expressed concerns about the Bay Minette program, saying that the program endorses religion by partnering with churches. The administrators of the program point out that with 56 church options, no single religion or belief is being endorsed. However, the constitutionality of the program or of particular offenders who do not subscribe to the offered churches’ beliefs has yet to be tested.

Sources

Society for Promotion of Community Standards, Inc (PDF): http://spcs.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/ResearchReports/RecidivismInterventionReport.pdf
MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44639996/ns/local_news-rochester_ny/t/offenders-alabama-town-can-choose-jail-or-church/#.TnzO1WOP-_0
CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/09/23/national/main20110680.shtml
The Blaze: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/alabama-city-to-let-non-violent-criminals-choose-jail-or-weekly-church-attendance/
UK Department of Justice (PDF): http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/docs/community-sentencing.pdf

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