Want to avoid jail time? In Alabama, you can go to church instead!
I haven't been a big fan of "church" of late, but there are some very positive things about being a part of a faith community. I don't see the harm in the judge, in a misdemeanor case, offering one year's church attendance as an alternative to the jail time/community service route... with some caveats:
1. Is it really voluntary? If the new parolee happens to be Catholic, and is going to go to the church up the street, this is great. But what if he's an atheist? Can he go to an atheist discussion group each week and would it count? And agostics? I'm thinking they are confused enough that they'd have to make the rounds of every faith-based building in town over the course of the following year. Paperwork nightmare, is what that is. But I would disagree with the ACLU that this would violate the establishment clause of the Constitution if it is really voluntary, and if there are alternatives for every faith (or lack of faith).
2. Make sure they're actually going. If you agree to go, you'd better go or else. There had better be some real punishment for NOT keeping this promise and it needs to be followed up on. If the program is entirely voluntary, no fair squealing that the judge threw you in the slammer for not going to church later.
3. Let the person be able to change churches twice during the year. It would really be hard to go to a church you hate for a whole year, but letting people hop around each week is also a paperwork nightmare. Giving the person the option of changing twice during the year is a fair compromise.
4. Umm... how to put this nicely. Are the churches really ready for these people? Has the pastor talked to everyone about what to expect?
Honestly and bluntly, though, this whole idea that church attendance is going to change these people somehow is a bit paternalistic. Gimme a break. I suppose it's about as effective as jail or an expensive "detox" program (like the stars get! only they serve bologna instead of organic veggies!) but there you go.
The church I attended had problems with trespassers and vandals. Once an expensive piece of electronics was stolen and the teen involved tried to resell it... to a Christian school. Ha ha! Ok, that didn't work. The pastor decided not to press charges in exchange for church attendance. He came one whopping time.
Not that church attendance woulda changed him a whole lot. His daddy was a Pentecostal preacher, and I guess he'd rather attend his own church... wouldn't want Dad's flock to wonder why the kid wasn't sitting in the front row each week, eh? Yeah.