Church time instead of prison time

cuffsSometimes a news story should mention the absence of an issue if only to calm the passions of the readers so more important issues can become the focus of the response to the story. Over in my old stomping grounds dubbed the Quad Cities, the region’s two local newspapers have jumped on a fascinating legal story that has a man with an extensive and violent criminal record agreeing to attend church as part of a probation sentence.

Both stories (here is the Rock Island Argus/Moline Dispatch‘s version and the Quad-City Times version here) note the defendant’s long history with the law and describe the most recent incident that got him in trouble. However, there is an absence of information about the origins of the unique conditions of probation.

Here is the Times:

Hill, 29, of Davenport was sentenced Wednesday by Scott County Associate Judge Christine Dalton to a counseling program offered by Third Missionary Baptist Church. She also ordered him to attend church there eight consecutive Sundays, to pay a fine and be on probation for one year.

If he doesn’t comply, he faces up to two years in prison for eluding and driving while barred. The charges are the result of a police chase from Rock Island to Davenport in October.

“Let’s give it a shot,” Dalton said of the counseling program plan presented to her by Hill’s attorney, Brenda Drew-Peeples, and supported by Rogers Kirk, pastor at Third Missionary. “I’m all about one more chance.”

The counseling program, Drew-Peeples said, is a chance for Hill to gain role models who are responsible men and are contributing to society.

“I believe God has a plan for Pachino Hill’s life, and I believe it’s coming to fruition,” she said.

Prosecutor Marc Gellerman did not object to the counseling program but did request that Hill attend church services.

The knee-jerk reaction to this story is that there is some huge separation of church and state issue that the American Civil Liberties Union is chomping at the bit to get struck down in a higher court. But the problem with that is that the defendant is readily agreeing to the church service sentence. In fact, he’d be pretty foolish to disagree since a refusal could result in him serving hard jail time.

From what I gather from the Times story, the counseling program was suggested by the defendant’s attorney, and the church service attendance requirement was added by the prosecutors office. All the judge does is sign off on the idea and apply the legal teeth to enforce the probation.

As demonstrated in the dozens of comments attached to the two stories, some people would prefer that the state not order people to attend church as part of a probation sentence while others would rather lock up criminals in prison and toss away the key.

However, this is not likely to be an issue that will see an appeals court unless there is a unique way someone could sue on grounds that the judge’s enforcement of a church service attendance order is a form of state endorsement of religion. Either way, I wish the news stories had given us more information on this aspect of the story. There is plenty of material out there starting with the supporters and critics of the Prison Fellowship program.

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  • Judy Harrow

    the defendant is readily agreeing to the church service sentence. In fact, he’d be pretty foolish to disagree since a refusal could result in him serving hard jail time.

    And exactly the same two sentences could have been applied to the Jewish and Muslim conversos of Inquisition-era Spain.

    This is a textbook example of somebody engaging in religious activity under duress, which is the very worst kind of governmental establishment of religion. It’s just ludicrous to call this man’s church attendance “voluntary.”

  • Jonathon

    Hear, hear, Judy. You took the words out of my mouth.

    No person should EVER be compelled by the force of government to participate in any religious service or program. Quite frankly, no judge should ever have allowed the prosecutor to add compulsory church attendance to the agreement.

    Why couldn’t/shouldn’t the defendant be able to “gain role models who are responsible men and are contributing to society” in a secular setting? Is there any reason to believe that religious beliefs and practices produce men who are inherently “responsible” or contribute to society? Or at least moreso than secular men?

    I am disgusted that, in the United States of America in the year 2008 CE, a man has been sentenced to compulsory church attendance and participation in religious counselling. But I am even more disgusted by the bias in this case towards religiosity over secularism – especially given that there is zero empirical evidence that prooves that “faith based” programs are more effective than secular ones.

  • Jacob

    I find this interesting, could be a good topic of discussion. Although I would challenge Johnathons view in regards to religon verses secularism….don’t alot of secular courses simply use practices or views found in judeo-christian belief systems? Aren’t they just religious “values” or “morals” imposed on its participance under the guise of being considered “secular”? After all, being “secular”, what really does that mean? hhmmm? Just a thought.

  • Eric Chaffee

    As regarding probation, compliance is king. And the prosecutor knows this, and knows there is a likelihood the man will fail, and return to jail. And the pastor, who is very aware of the media attention, will be unlikely to give the guy a late pass if he parties wildly Saturday night.

    I do not see this a an “establishment clause” issue. The man clearly needs exposure to new friends. For the court to recognize this is not dark and scary, if the man is willing. Judy’s converso observation is apt, but flawed. I see it as a conversion from old lifestyle to one which could be more civilized and law abiding. New friends can illustrate new ways without the ancient threat of “evicting the guy from Spain.” He has nothing to lose but his past behavior. So, what’s wrong with a little church-AND-state-coaxed behavior-modification? (But I’m glad the media is watching.)


  • Michael

    The key is that this was recommended by his attorney, thus consent. If this had been the judge’s idea, there would be ACLU-like problems. But since he recommended it–through his attorney–it lacks the usual coercive elements or even the ones contained in Prison Ministry which gives a preference to believers and participants.

  • Dave

    I’m with Judy and Jonathon. This is state coercion of religious practice.

    I’ve no problem with the counseling, even if under church auspices, as long as it’s not a covert conduit for religious indoctrination.

  • FW Ken

    As a parole officer, I am frequently exposed to “jailhouse religion” and it’s always interesting to see how it plays out. The stats are pretty good for faith-based criminal justice interventions (did I miss those in the stories?), but there’s a lot of anecdotes to tell, as well.

    The reporting would be strengthened by more information on programmatic options within the local probation office and how this will be monitored. Our programmatic component maintains various faith-based and some secular options which would actually engage him and demand an interaction. Does the local probation department have access to things like that?

    I would also like to know more about the counseling program at the church. Is it individual sessions or a group program? 12 Step or other group process? Curriculum based or focused on sharing? How will the probation officer monitor progress?

    Actually, giving him another probation for the same offense is my biggest problem with this story, but that’s the case, not the journalism. On the other hand, you never know what will work with a person. I have heard people talk about how their probation or parole officers forced them to go to AA or NA meetings and they hated it, until one day it sunk in. So you never know.

  • MJBubba

    How can this situation be construed as coercive or as a conversion? The defendant selected the church and the program, and put the program forward as an option to jail time. The prosecutor said OK to the defendant-selected faith-based program, with the provision that the defendant embrace the faith elements in their entirety for a short period of time.
    Regarding the journalism, the stories are fine, no apparent flaws. Daniel P. is right to point out that the parts that are missing are sure to get the church-state separation juices flowing, which might have been avoided by more complete reporting.

  • Dave


    If he doesn’t comply, he faces up to two years in prison

    That’s how it can be construed as coercive.