Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fighting Crime With Religion


A small town in southern Alabama has given local judges a new weapon in the war on crime: religion.

Bay Minette, Ala. has initiated Operation ROC: Restore Our Community; a program in which qualifying first time offenders of non-violent misdemeanors may choose to attend church services once a week for a year instead of going to jail or having to do community service. Under the program, pastors would partner with local law-enforcement by monitoring the attendance of participating offenders; if they complete the program and check-in all 52 weeks, then their case is dismissed. So far, 56 churches in the Bay Minette area have decided to participate in the program.

Supporters of Operation ROC have praised the program for being an alternative to the traditional punitive sentences facing most criminals, giving offenders a better chance to be rehabilitated. As the Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland said, “its not a crime prevention program. It’s a crime intervention program.” He continued by saying “we’re hoping that through this program for the next year, we will take a substantial number who are sentenced and turn them around and let them become productive people in the community.”

Supporters also point to the fact that the program has the potential to save the taxpayers a substantial amount of money. Alabama has a high incarceration rate and faces prison overcrowding. By giving offenders an alternative to jail, the state may avoid incurring the cost of their incarceration (assuming the person in question completes the program).

While it is obvious that this program has nothing but the best of intentions, one must still question its constitutionality. Groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have already criticized the program, claiming it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a statement that in part says that it is “a bedrock principle of constitutional law that the state cannot coerce citizens to participate in religious practices.” Supporters of the program have countered by arguing that participation in the program is strictly voluntary and that no one can be forced to attend church in lieu of incarceration.

So, the issue at hand here is “does offering a religious alternative to traditional sentences constitute an establishment of religion?” The ACLU says yes, but established legal precedent says no.

The arguments presented against Operation ROC are similar to those presented against Alcoholics Anonymous. For many years, judges would sentence offenders of alcohol-related crimes to mandatory AA meetings for a certain length of time in lieu of sending them to jail. However, several lawsuits were eventually filed due to discomfort felt by the offender in meetings because of the role of religion in AA (for instance, several of the program’s 12 steps mention God). Federal courts have ruled time and time again (or instance, in Griffin v. Coughlin (1997)) that mandatory AA attendance violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because of the overt role of religion in the organization. However, those same courts ruled that presenting AA attendance as an alternative to incarceration and allowing offenders to choose between the two does not constitute an establishment of religion, nor does it constitute, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation put it, “coercion to participate in religious practices.”

So, if participation in Alcoholics Anonymous is an acceptable alternative to incarceration if presented to offenders as part of a choice of possible punishments, why can’t Operation ROC be an acceptable alternative as well? There isn’t really much of a difference between the two: both are religiously oriented rehabilitative programs offered as alternatives to incarceration that offenders have the choice to participate in. If one program is acceptable, the other should be as well.

I thought it was interesting that neither side of the debate addressed the issue of “what if a person’s denomination (or religion as a whole, in the case of Muslims, Jews, etc.) is not represented in the group of participating churches?” If that is the case, the person has a couple options. First, they can choose not to participate in the program if they do not feel comfortable with any of the participating churches. It is after all a voluntary program, both for the offender and for the churches. Just as the court cannot force someone to attend church, it also cannot force a place of worship to participate in the program; both would be unconstitutional. The other option available to the offender is to just do the bare minimum to complete the program. The only stipulation of the program is to attend one of the participating churches once a week for a year; it does not say anything about believing anything you hear while you are there or having to participate in any activities while in attendance. If a person wanted to check-in with the pastor and then take a nap in the back pew every week for a year, they would still satisfy the requirements of the program (although they would be missing the point of participating in it entirely). This isn’t a make it or break it issue, but if this program is ever challenged in court, it will surely be addressed.

11 comments:

Harry R. said...

I agree with Christopher's analysis of this policy. The legal rulings regarding AA seem to apply in this case since both do not have mandatory components and merely offer an alternative to jail. This program also seems to benefit the state interest in rehabilitating criminals. While only churches have signed up so far, I feel that other religious groups would participate if this program continues. Since there is no mandatory component of the program and the Supreme Court has previously upheld the constitutionality of AA as not violating the establishment clause, I believe this program to be constitutional as well.

Allison S said...

I agree with Christopher. Attending these church services instead of incarceration is optional and like AA is not establishing a religion but rather attempts to offer an optional alternative to those who want the help. Not only does this program attempt to help the criminals but it takes the strain off of tax payers who fund the prisons these inmates are in. I do not see this program as an establishment because it is voluntary and since AA was allowed to continue, this program should be as well. Addressing Chris’s question of what about what if the person’s denomination was not represented in the churches, I would hope that other churches and religious programs could also get involved to help criminals of the same denomination. I think that overall this program although sponsored by churches is beneficial to everyone involved, the state, criminals, and the public.

Casey K said...

Isn't this a clear example of violating the separation between church and state? The criminal system is run by the government. Allowing criminals to choose to go to church is an obvious way of the government supporting and spreading religion. I believe that the McCollum v. board of edu case could be applied here. Criminal punishment is a tax supported system (just like public schools) and using this system to support and spread religion is unconstitutional.

Grant Z said...

I do agree with Christopher that the AA rulings would apply to the ROC program. However, I personally agree with Casey and believe that this constitutes an establishment of religion. We say that the convicted have a choice, but look at the options. How is different from saying “Go to church or we’ll throw you in jail”? There needs to be a third secular option - perhaps some sort of weekly psychological counseling - as well as a wide array of eligible religious groups in order to avoid violating establishment clause in my opinion.

Ashley R said...

I think such programs are constitutional. They neither constitute an establishment of religion nor do they impede upon anyone’s right to worship freely. If the program works, then more religious groups will participate, thus better representing the various denominations of potential users of the program. Participation in the program is done on a volunteer basis, therefore no breech of the establishment clause is committed.

PamelaR said...

I disagree with Christopher that the AA issue is relevant here. While AA might have religious values, and the court requiring AA is probably inappropriate as well, the point of AA is to stop alcoholism. The point of going to church is not to make someone stop being a criminal or behave better in society-- it may have that outcome, but it's not direct enough. Like Grant said, this is absolutely telling people to "go to church or go to jail", which is completely against the establishment clause. Even if every possible religion was represented in this church program, there are still a considerable number of Americans who are atheists, or do not believe in organized religion-- to them, this forces them to choose between picking one of the pre-chosen religious options, or going to jail.

Zoey Goldnick said...

I have a problem believing that attending these sessions is "optional" when the other option is jail. Maybe people will not be in the situation to leave their families and source of employment but the other option is sacrificing their religious convictions. It is not constitutional to have this program because it actively supports the church in recruiting new members.

Annie M said...

While at first glance it did seem to me that it is a clear violation of separation of church and state, it actually may be a good alternative for non-violent criminals. Having to attend church every week might not have any significant punishment on the person though. I fear that it would be an easy way out and the person wouldn't learn his/her lesson. For the focus of this class however, it does seem like it's establishing a non-specific religion, and those who decide not to have a religion at all may feel uncomfortable with that.

BryceS said...

I believe this case is controversial due to the fact that it does represent a church establishment. Yes, participation is voluntary, but the mere fact that the state is giving incarcerated individuals the option to choose between church and prison is a blatant infringement on the establishment clause (in my opinion). Also, I believe that this method was a convenient solution to the state’s prison population issue and that implications were not considered thoroughly. If you look at this from the standpoint of maintaining prison space, the state is encouraging individuals to participate in this program so as to allow for enough room for incarcerated individuals in state prisons.

Grace R said...

I agree with Christopher's general findings. However, I also think that this program does benefit a specific religion. While I know that it is voluntary; attending church once a week for a year certainly seems much more agreeable then jail time. While the system might work, if its going to be offered, it should include other places of worship, such as synagogues and mosques. It is constitutional because it is voluntary and the state does not pay for it, but it is pushing the line and the arguments against it have merit.

Callie B said...

I think Zoey put it eloquently when she said "it's not really optional if the other option is jail". Furthermore, many of my classmates are commenting that other religious groups would most likely participate if the program continues; however, upon reading the article it is clear that the wording says "jail or Sunday church" -not jail or temple, prayer, mosque, etc. Additionally, criminals would not be able to "sleep through the service" as someone commented previously, because the criminals have questions they have to be able to answer about the service each week.