Sentenced to ten years. In church.

I keep seeing these stories from time to time where judges hand down “creative” sentences to criminals. These cases seem intended to either prove a point, instill some sort of additional lesson – either to the convict or the public – or simply avoid locking up as many people. This story from Oklahoma may raise more questions than answers, though.

Mike Norman is an Oklahoma district court judge known for sentencing offenders to attend church as part of probation agreements. Still, the sentence he handed down this week was notable both for its length and the age of the offender. On Tuesday, Norman sentenced 17-year-old Tyler Alred to a 10-year deferred sentence after he plead guilty to manslaughter. Among the stipulations of the sentence — that Alred attend church for 10 years.

There aren’t a lot of particulars on the case available, beyond noting that Alred is 17 years old and was found to be driving while intoxicated at the time of the accident which killed a passenger in the car. It’s a serious charge, so perhaps ten years might have been appropriate, but he apparently won’t be serving any of it. Instead, he will need to keep his nose clean and attend church every week.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not this is fair “punishment” for the crime in question, does the order to attend church each week have the potential to do anything positive, either for the convict or society at large? And is this even constitutional?

As to the first count, I’m willing to concede the possibility that some really amazing things can take place during church services. Perhaps Alred will listen to the word of God during sermons and achieve some sort of revelation. Possibly just the environment – spending time in the company of better folk with higher goals – could rub off on him, providing him with positive role models. But it hardly seems a sure thing. The most benefit to come from spending time in a house of worship would seem to me to come to those who seek out that type of solace and support on their own. You must come willingly, or so I would take it from John 5: 39 – 43. Going and sitting in church probably looks like a much better option than sitting in a prison cell, but is it accomplishing what the Judge seems to wish?

And to the second point, regardless of what your feelings are about the concept of separation of church and state, should a judge be able to force someone into church? Doesn’t that kind of violate the 1st Amendment?

I understand and sympathize more than some folks when it comes to some forms of creative sentencing. Forcing a minor offense scofflaw to wear a sign proclaiming their stupidity or lack of civility to their neighbors actually might prove more of a lesson to some people than a fine or a short stretch in the county lock-up. Making youthful offenders do work to benefit those who they harmed (in minor cases) in full public view might turn somebody’s life around. But this was a ten year sentence in the Crowbar Motel for manslaughter being put on hold and replaced with one hour per week in the pews. I’m just not sure if this works. What do you think?