Alabama program offering choice between jail time or church postponed
A program in Alabama that was supposed to allow offenders to choose between going to church for a year, or serving a term in jail and paying a fine, was temporarily delayed after a civil rights group issued a letter of objection.
The Operation Restore Our Community, an initiative in Bay Minette, Alabama by Municipal Judge Bayless E. Biles, was supposed to begin this week.
Operation ROC would have allowed first-time nonviolent offenders to choose between church (and a range of other alternatives including community service) and jail in an effort to address jail overcrowding.
Under the program, if offenders choose the church option, they will have to go to service for one year and then answer questions about the day’s service. Offenders will also have to report to police and a clergy member every week, for tracking purposes, rather than for measuring morality. If they follow the program rules, their case will be dismissed.
Under Operation ROC participants are free to drop out of the program at any time. If they do, they can request before a judge an alternative sentencing option.
Rowland told Reuters, “Operation ROC is completely voluntary. It’s not an issue of ‘Go to church, or go to jail.’ It’s ‘Here’s another alternative to consider,’ and the offenders themselves get to make the decision.”
However, a cease and desist letter sent by the American Civil Liberties Union resulted in its postponement. The ACLU claimed the program violates the first amendment, and demanded that it be dismantled because it violates both the Alabama and U.S. constitutions.
ACLU attorney Heather Weaver told ABC News, “Even if the city offers other sentencing alternatives that are comparable to Operation ROC … the First Amendment still prohibits the government from becoming entangled in core religious exercise, which includes attending church. The government may not serve as a conduit for church recruitment.”
The initiative is currently undergoing legal review. Bay Minette’s Mayor, Jamie Tillery, told ABC News in an email, “The city will ask the Alabama Attorney General to review the program as well. The city will reserve further comment until these reviews have been completed.”
Weaver told ABC News that if the program pushes through, the ACLU may consider litigation.
Bay Minette’s police chief, Mike Rowland told WKRG, “We believe it is legal. We believe it is a great program. We’re going to stick with this and we’re going to move forward with it.” He said the program is likely to proceed in a few weeks.
Rowland told Reuters, “There is no question it is within the purview of the law. It’s not about trying to save anybody. It’s about giving them access to community resources that can help them make better choices in their lives.”
A range of alternatives
Bay Minette court clerk Hugh “Trey” Dickson told Reuters that first-time offenders usually commit traffic violations. Under the program, they can choose among several alternatives to jail, including community service. If they choose the church option, they can choose which church they want to attend. To date, some 56 churches from different denominations have enlisted on the program.