The Alabama police chief behind a controversial "jail or church" program insists law enforcement and churches both share the same purpose, and that critics claiming the initiative violates church and state separation laws simply do not know what they are talking about.
The Christian Post reported Sept. 23 that the program, called "Operation Restore Our Community," or ROC, would be implemented this week in Baldwin County, Alabama.
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.
The initiative has received criticism from those who argue that ROC is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state.
In addition, being given a choice between jail and church is "no choice at all," Robert Boston, the senior policy adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told CP. "The equivalency is so out of whack, it's ridiculous."
However, Bay Minette police Chief Michael Rowland, who helped organize the program, says that people like Boston and other ROC critics simply do not know how the Bay Minette legal system works.
"All these groups saying stuff – they don’t know the details," Rowland told CP. "If this was the only alternative available, then maybe it would violate some constitutional laws. But [ROC] is just one of several alternatives that are available to judges."
Rowland pointed out that judges decide on what they believe would be the best way to handle offenders and have several programs to choose from, including community service activities, such as raking leaves, picking up trash, and washing police cars. Therefore, an offender is not "forced" to choose between jail and church.
When asked if going to church once a week is still a far more attractive choice compared to picking up trash on the side of the road, Rowland stressed the choice aspect.
"Nobody is forcing anybody to go to church," he said, reiterating that judges give the offender the option only if he or she believes the offender will benefit from ROC.
In regards to the church and state separation aspect, Rowland believes people are too caught up in labels.
"I think it's a cloudy issue," he said, referring to the many other factors involved in the process of deciding whether or not an offender will be given the choice of participating in the ROC program. Some of those factors include the severity of the offense, past records, and, most importantly, whether or not the offender actually wants to participate in the program.
"They always have the choice," Rowland said. "It's up to them."
However, one of the major concerns Boston cites is the possibility that offenders with other belief systems would not have the same choice, resulting in one having Christianity forcibly imposed on them.
"Not true," Rowland responded. "Any established, faith-based organization is eligible for the program." This would include Judaism, Islam, and other religions with a recognized house of worship in the vicinity.
However, atheists and agnostics would be out of luck.
"We would not have an option for them," Rowland responded. "It's a faith-based program. So it has to be a faith-based organization."
Rowland said that despite the criticisms people have for ROC, the point is to find alternatives for criminal offenders. "Incarceration doesn't work," he said. "The vast majority of criminals who go through the incarceration process don't get rehabilitated."
Rowland adds that the nature of ROC, which would almost always be for nonviolent offenders with little or no criminal past, is to prevent people from turning to crime.
"It's sort of a crime intervention," Rowland said.
Although ROC's designers did not rely on similar programs, or knew of any similar programs, to help project the effectiveness of the initiative, Rowland believes it is worth giving a shot.
The police chief sees nothing wrong with churches being a part of the rehabilitation program. In fact, he says, churches have the same purpose as law enforcement.
"Churches do a lot of the same things as police: they preserve the peace and dignity of the community," he said. "What we're doing is for the peace and dignity of the community and to keep it safe."
Nearly six dozen local churches have reportedly signed on to the program.
Pastor Robert Gates told local television news station WRKG-TV that the church solution would work.
"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."