Alabama Town Gives Offenders a Choice: Jesus or Jail

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Given the choice between jail and church, which would you choose?

The small southern Alabama town of Bay Minette is giving non-violent offenders a chance to pick between lockup and the Lord.

Beginning next week, Operation ROC (Restore Our Community) will have a city judge offer those found guilty of misdemeanors the choice between working off their offenses in jail and paying a fine or attending the church of their choice every week for a year. WKRG-TV in Mobile, Ala., reported 56 churches in North Baldwin County are participating in the program.

(MORE: Inside the World’s Most Humane Prison)

If offenders pick church, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee eternal salvation, but they can check in each week with the pastor or the police department. If the program is completed successfully their case will be dropped.

Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland says it costs his department about $75 a day to jail offenders, so the ROC program is cost-effective. “Longevity is the key,” he explained in a television interview. “A 30-day drug program doesn’t work. A 30-day alcohol program does not work. But long-term programs to do work, and we believe that’s what’ll happen here.”

Rowland says that there is no separation of church and state boundary crossed here, but to be sure, NewsFeed called Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett, an expert on constitutional law. He said it could look to a court that government is pushing the convicted into a religious option if there is not a secular choice as well.

“A lot of times in church-state cases, the lines aren’t so crisp and clean,” he told TIME. “This looks more like the kind of case where courts have been very cautious about pressuring people.”

Madison Gray is Homepage Producer at Find him on Twitter at @madisonjgray. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.