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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