fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

church instead of jail?

I wasn't going to comment on this, because the way the politicians involved spoke, it looks like they're just itching for a fight. And really, I have better things to do! But the more I try to leave it behind, the more uncomfortable I am leaving it unchallenged because this situation is just so wrong.

Bay Minette, Alabama to Let Non-Violent Criminals choose Jail or Church

Basically, if you are convicted of a felony misdemeanor* you can skip out on jail if you agree to go to church once weekly and meet with the pastor, and also meet with a policeman once weekly. The idea was that this would do a better job of reforming people than a short stint in jail. Hallowell, who wrote the linked article, above, acknowledges that this is "sure to agitate church and state separatists" but he thinks it is a promising option. On the church/state issue, he references the local police chief, who "claims that the provision doesn’t violate separation of church and state mandates due to the fact that offenders are able to choose whether they wish to go to jail or worship weekly."

*Note: I accidentally typed felony when I meant misdemeanor. The law only covers misdemeanors, and I corrected the mistake.

My jaw dropped open a bit on reading about the "separatists" - as if we (because I do count myself in that club) were some rebel militia group! I would think that this idea should be shocking to any American with a basic understanding of the first amendment. The two choices being offered are clearly not equal, not even close, and the option of two weekly meetings is much less disruptive of someone's life than a month or however long in jail. Even if we're just talking about a fine, that still works out to a financial incentive to affiliate yourself with a certain church. The fact that anyone would think this is okay, let alone defend it, is a bit astounding. As I said, it is hard to see this as anything other than a way to get people riled up. Are there people who seriously think this isn't a serious challenge to the first amendment? I simply can't wrap my head around that line of thought.

But even more than that, I'm a bit surprised that we would send people to jail for a misdemeanor when justice and the need to reform them could be handled just as well on an outpatient basis. Even misdemeanors have a victim, and often enough they are a warning against more serious future crimes. So one reason we send people to jail for relatively minor crimes is (arguably!) so they'll get the help they need before they commit major crimes. But religion is not some magic panacea. Church service (or jum'ah, etc.) can provide a place for community and accountability and may be a way to grow closer to God and become a better practitioner of a certain religion. But just going won't in and of itself keep you from messing up. Clergy aren't shrinks and they aren't social workers; and with many small churches they don't have any specialized training at all (seminary is often optional if a pastor isn't ordained through a denomination). So I actually think this is a really deterrent to future crime!

What this does point to is the idea that jail may not be the best fit for all crimes. I quite agree. And I'm not against alternative punishment. I know one friend who, as a teenager, shoplifted and was given the option of juvenile detention or an after-school church-run youth program. He decided a couple of hours of basketball a day was better than jail and took the second option - but because he was having daily contact with a hard-as-nails priest who kept an eye on him and straightened him out. That works better than jail, when it's available. But it wasn't built on religion as a magical cure-all, and it also required regular, prolonged contact. This suggestion, on the other hand, is offensive to me as a Constitution-following American. And as a Christian; religion is not a jail, nor is it in itself a cure-all, but a tool toward becoming a better person. It's also unlikely to be effective. Three fails and you're out.


Btw: my friend Dan has his own reaction to this same news story. Reading his blog post was part of why I finally decided to blog on this, though I had encountered the news story through another source and was already half-way toward that decision on my own. *g* Do check his reaction out as well, if you're interested.

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Tags: politics, religion
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