BAY MINETTE, Ala. (WALA) - It all started with a simple question asked by a group of churches in north Baldwin County: What can we do?
"What could they do for our citizens who are on that bubble between going to a life of crime or being able to turn back to a productive citizen," said Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland.
What came out of that community meeting Rowland said is the "Restore Our Community" program where non-violent, first-time offenders can choose to go to church over going to jail. It's been in the works for six months, but over the last couple of days has received national attention, especially from the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The issue is a forced religion. There's no forcing of anyone in this. It's totally voluntary," Rowland said.
Rowland said he is confident the program is within the law.
"It's very common in the nation. All courts exercise alternative sentencing. This is just another alternative sentencing option," said Rowland.
Rowland said if an offender does choose the option, he or she must attend weekly services for a year, and attendance will be monitored. It's open to all denominations.
"They get to choose the church. If they don't have a particular church in mind, they can [choose] any church anywhere," Rowland said.
Rowland said the program was supposed to start this week. However, the final version is under legal review to make sure what started as a simple question doesn't turn out to be a legal nightmare.
Rowland said since word of the "Restore Our Community" program has spread, he has had many calls from other states interested in starting similar programs.
Read the letter from the ACLU to Bay Minette city officials here .
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If you were in the Foley area Thursday, you may have seen a helicopter, police and K-9 units. That’s because a store in Foley was robbed this morning at gunpoint. Eventually, the search was called off. The suspect is still on the loose.
Pastor of Lifeway Community Church Mike McPherson says thieves stole presents that would have been given to needy children.
Skies are mostly clear and the breezy north wind is very noticeable this evening. Daytime highs were only in the mid 50’s today. We are expecting a light freeze tonight along and north of I-10. Lows will be near 32 degrees in Mobile. Upper 20’s are possible well inland.