Church or Jail?


Bay Minette, a city in my home state Alabama (woot!), recently launched “Operation Restore Our Community.” It sounds super legitimate, but I can’t say that I am too proud of it. Essentially, Bay Minette is now offering some offenders the choice between “Jesus time” and “jail time.” The ones who choose church over jail will have to check in with a local church of their choosing every Sunday for a year. This Operation aims to provide a more long-term solution to some offenses and is projected to save $75 a day per inmate. Only churches are participating in the Operation because there are no synagogues/mosques/temples in the region.

And it is also being sued by the ACLU on the claims that the city government is forcing religious participation (surprise!?!?).

I am guessing that most of you agree with me that it is not exactly ethical to offer such choices to people, but what is really interesting me is the long-term solution approach: The fact that the judicial system is willing to address how to really fix the problem is a good sign.

But how do you really fix the problem in the long run without encountering ethical problems? Sure, forcing people to go to church may reduce the offenses a little bit by providing the offenders a potential community, but then how do you reconcile the fact that you are telling people to go to church?

This reminded me of a piece by Malcolm Gladwell from a while back – in which Gladwell discussed unconventional approaches to solving some of the hardest problems in America today. He talked about offering free housing/food to the chronic homeless with virtually no conditions – giving them chance after chance even though there are other people who “deserve” more help – such as single mothers working three jobs – arguing that this aids the chronic homeless more and saves the system a tremendous amount of money in the long run. There is certainly a lot of room for ethical debate in these types of tactics.

But going back to the Operation, sure, the approach sucked. It favors Christians, it forces people to go to church because to be honest, would you rather go to church every Sunday or go to jail everyday? Its primary rationale lies somewhere on the line of “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” (trust me, I can certainly name more than a handful of “Christian” lunatics). It’s most likely against the Constitution and it is definitely not something that immediately provokes a “Wow! Good idea!” response from the general population.

But the motive – the idea of trying something “different” that just might solve the problem is something worth applauding. In the heart of Dixie, the state where the phrase “Pro-Choice” is usually not met with popularity, a better choice can be offered to these minor offenders, and I believe that although the Operation is not going in the right direction, it certainly has the right idea – simply putting people in jail does not solve problems. There will be some tough ethical questions to answer, but I hope my state recognizes its mistakes and improve for the better.

P.S. On a kind of related side note: While imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote a famous letter to various churches and clergymen. I find this connection to be interesting.