An Alabama town is giving non-violent offenders a choice between going to jail or going to church, and even though critics insist the program blatantly violates church and state separation laws, criminal justice experts say it should not be dismissed so quickly.
The "jail or church" program is called "Operation Restore Our Community," or ROC, and will begin next week, local TV station WKRG reports.
How the program works is simple: offenders found guilty of misdemeanors will either pay their debt to society by paying fines and going to jail, or going to church every Sunday for a year. If offenders choose church, they will have to check in with pastors and police weekly. At the end of the year, their case is dismissed.
"It's an easy choice for me," says Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland. "If I had to choose between going to jail and paying a heavy fine or going to church, I'd certainly select church."
"That's no choice at all," Robert Boston, the senior policy adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told The Christian Post. "The equivalency is so out of whack, it’s ridiculous."
The lop-sidedness of the two choices is essentially a way of "funneling people into churches," Boston said.
He also claimed that the ROC program is offensive to atheists as well as people of other faiths, since offenders are not given a choice that represents their beliefs.
However, even with religious alternatives, Boston still finds the program to be problematic. "It's not the job of the government to place people in places of worship," he said.
"[ROC] is going to get this town in a lot of trouble," Boston added.
Despite the possibilities of church and state violations, Rowland believes ROC works because it is a long-term program.
"Longevity is the key," Rowland said. "A 30-day alcohol program does not work. But long-term programs do work and we believe that's what will happen."
Dr. Angela Hawken, associate professor of economics and policy analysis at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, agreed with both Boston and Rowland: there are some obvious constitutional issues, but long-term programs are often more effective than short-term alternatives.
"When people check-in regularly for a year, it could be perfect for keeping [offenders] on the radar," Hawken told CP.
Hawken also believes that there is not anything inherently wrong with scheduled visits to places of worship being used for criminal rehabilitation.
"It won't suddenly flip a switch, especially since it's so coercive," Hawken said.
However, "often people pick up good behavior when something like that is imposed on them," she said, pointing out that churches can be a place where one is able to be a part of a community and find other people for support and positive reinforcement.
Hawken expressed reservations about constitutional issues, as well as the coercive aspect of choosing between being locked up in jail and paying fines or going to church once a week, which she does not consider a true choice.
Instead of rolling out a big program, Hawken recommended that officials start out on a small, case-by-case basis to see which aspects of the program works.
Despite Hawken's concerns, she commended Rowland for attempting to find alternatives to incarceration.
"I think we're in desperate need for new solutions," she said.