Alabama tells offenders to pick between jail and Jesus

Alabama church

The small town Bay Minette, Alabama is giving non-violent offenders a choice: Either go to prison for your crime, or go to church every Sunday!

Church programs being used for paroles is not out of the ordinary. In the past, I’ve attended a church which doubles as a rehabilitation center and operates state licensed programs for recent paroles. There is nothing wrong with that. The paroles are not required to attend the church service-only meetings that are held on Saturdays, which are not religious.

Alabama, on the other hand, is requiring offenders an alternative to prison or paying a fine — attend church every week for a year and you can have your case dismissed. And the reason for the program is to save money: Allowing them to attend church as opposed to incarceration costs saves the town 75 bucks a day.

The Police Chief Mike Rowland said that “…the core of the crime problem was the erosion of family values and morals. We have children raising children and parents not instilling values in young people…You show me somebody who falls in love with Jesus, and I’ll show you a person who won’t be a problem to society,” he told WKRG [the local news station].

The ACLU has already called the program unconstitutional, which it most certainly is. “It violates one basic tenet of the Constitution, namely that government can’t force participation in religious activity,” said Olivia Turner, the executive director of the ACLU of Alabama.

Making someone choose between prison and church is basically acting like the First Amendment doesn’t exist, at least when it comes to individuals being forced into Christianity. The police chief claims that they have a choice to attend a mosque, but with few mosques in the area surrounding Bay Minette, it’s really a false choice for many. And what about non-believers, agnostics, and atheists? They are really given no choice at all. It’s either go to prison, or allow for a violation of their constitutional rights. That’s unacceptable. Alabama needs a refresher in the U.S. Constitution.

Join the Conversation

  • toongrrl

    What about those people that kill in the name of the Lord (or commit other crimes) ? How do they fall under this?

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      Well, the article says this option is only for non-violent offenders. Which doesn’t make it any more Constitutional, but anyone who killed wouldn’t get this choice.

  • Andrew

    Organized religion = scam

  • Rachel

    show me someone who falls in love with Jesus, and I’ll show you one uncomfortable agnostic.

  • nazza

    In the small-town South, ideas like these are simply never questioned. People believe in the basic erosion of morality and ascribe a cure only in the ways in which they are familiar. I happen to know a little bit about Bay Minette, because it’s on the way to the beach.

    Most of South Alabama is sparsely populated, home to timber more than people. I would be surprised if there is even one observant Muslim, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a few admitted Atheists and Agnostics call the town home. These small towns are very insular and the mentality of the residents never entertains issues like violation of First Amendment rights. Few have had the education and the information to make decisions we consider sensible and constitutional.

    So here’s a word to the wise for you. Alabama needs a new Constitution first. Its current constitution has more amendments than the Soviet Constitution did. But what it really needs are progressive people to come to live there, otherwise these attitudes are never challenged. I put up with it as long as I could.

  • Joanna

    Put yourself back in ancient Rome. You’re a Christian convict who can either worship Pagan-style at the temple of Jupiter where the judge tells you to go, or it’s to the lions with you. Exact same deal. (Except for the lions.)

  • Max

    Not only is it unconstitutional, it is also illogical. Being religious doesn’t necessarily mean that you are less likely to commit a crime in the future (though not being sentenced to jail may decrease the likelihood of a person committing future crimes). So while it’s possible the program may show positive results, those results won’t necessarily be because of church attendance, but because they were not in jail.

    Furthermore, if a person fails to attend church for a year, then the criminal case against them will continue. 52 times is a lot of times to do something, even with the powerful motivation of avoiding jail time–what happens to a person who fails to attend one time? It sounds like a way to force people to attend church and then send them to jail anyway.

    • Zed

      Being religious doesn’t necessarily mean that you are less likely to commit a crime in the future (though not being sentenced to jail may decrease the likelihood of a person committing future crimes).

      The stats imply that it’s actually an inverse relationship; being religious means that you are *more* likely to commit a crime than an athiest, as athiests are substantially underrepresented in prisons.

      That aside, however, I tend to think that (while coming to a correct conclusion) the analysis of this is coming from an odd direction. This isn’t so much a choice being presented to someone as “go to church, or we’ll take you to jail”, as jail is the baseline. This is rather a literal “get-out-of-jail-free” card being offered only (for all practical purposes) to church-going Christians (or those willing to become one or at least pretend to become one), which is likewise a state sponsorship of religion.

      I’m with davenj in that I think I’d support this as a general measure if it allowed for any regular participation in a respected community group to count, as I suspect it would indeed be true that regular interaction with upstanding citizens would produce less recidivism than jail time. This could be doubly true if the group explicitly discussed social issues once a week.

      Feminist book club in lieu of jail time, anyone?

  • davenj

    As patently illegal and wrong as this is, one interesting core reason for this action (if we believe the person that implemented it) is that he finds 30 days in lock-up to be less helpful at preventing recidivism than a long-term community support program (in this case, church).

    He’s wrong in attempting to mandate religious practice and to treat it as a cure for criminal behavior. However, the underlying principle, or at least one of the underlying principles, is that lots of community support over a long period of time is better than a shorter period of time locked away from society, which is something I wish a lot more people would get behind, albeit not in problematic ways like this.

    • lovethechase

      I have to agree with this last comment. I want to believe that the Police Department is moving towards a system of rehabilitative justice, rather than simply promoting a religous institution. It is absolutely illegal and unconstutional, but I don’t necessarily think it’s us moving backwards.

      It is a backwards move though, if the form of “rehabilitation” is actually the prayer itself, and not the activities they are engaged in while doing their “community service”. I hope the town can make more of an effort to focus on their service while at the church rather than their simply their presence there.

    • anyadnight

      What a great point! I was also thinking that if criminals are sent to church they might go to churches where they will have contact with groups that might be less likely to enable their former patterns of behavior. Because church draws from a common belief background rather than a shared background in crime (like a jail or even other rehab programs) the criminals might make connections with members of the community who will give them more opportunities and a view of more possibilities than they previously had.
      It would be great to see a town design a similar program that doesn’t insist on religion, but can bring criminals safely into contact with new groups and members of society and that will have a focus on moral and self development. Or something.

  • anyadnight

    What about the priests who commit sexually abusive acts? I would think they have both attended church and caused a deep problem with society. But then, I think that organized religion is a problem to society and especially when it influences legislation.
    Trust me, I’m from Utah.